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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Recognition, Familiarity and Employee Engagement

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“Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling”

Oliver Sacks – The Mind’s Eye

I was reading Dr. Sack’s latest book over a recent vacation and when I got to this sentence I had to pause for a while and really think about it. “Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling.” Recognition in this context is being used as when someone recognizes a location, a person or an object. Some people have trouble in varying degrees, for instance, to recognize the faces of people they know. The inability to recognize the face of someone who should be familiar to you is called prosopagnosia and there is a growing body of evidence that the incidence of prosopagnosia in the general population is much higher than previously thought, and that it is based on a normal distribution in terms of severity. This affliction is not binary, you don’t either have it or not, but rather you can have prosopagnosia to varying degrees, as is exists on a continuum of severity.

We all spend our days recognizing the objects, people even the tasks that surround us. For instance, you can recognize a specific person or just some artifacts about the person such as young/old, female/male. You can also recognize the foods you eat, the cars you drive, the pen you write with, or the tasks you undertake to carry out your job. But when those things we recognize seem “familiar”, they evoke emotions or feelings.   I recognize the face of my mother and she evokes certain feelings in me which makes her seem familiar.

Recognition and familiarity are independent and are processed by two different portions of our brains. This becomes evident in people with Capgas syndrome. These are people who can recognize a face, such as a spouse or child, but because the face does not evoke the emotions of familiarity, people with Capgas syndrome assume they are imposters  A man can see his wife and recognize her as being the face of his wife but assumes that it is not really his wife because the face is not evoking the feelings he normally would associate upon seeing his wife. The person must be an imposter!

In the work environment you might recognize a task you have to carry out, but independent of that recognition would be a sense of familiarity that the tasks might generate. You might recognize for instance the steps you have to undertake to perform a tune-up on a car, but it is not until you have done it over and over that the task achieves a sense of familiarity. The same could be said of a surgeon removing a gall bladder, an accountant preparing a tax return, a taxi driver heading to the airport etc.

The question that this posed to me was regarding the measurement of employee perceptions of the workplace. Employees can recognize tasks to be performed very early on in their training for a job. But when does a task feel familiar? And is employee engagement dependent on a task generating an emotional component of familiarity or merely the recognition of the task? Can someone be engaged in their work if the work does not carry a sense of familiarity? We know that normatively the most engaged employees tend to be the ones you just hired, those who would have the least amount of familiarity surrounding their tasks, which might seem odd given the above. And that employee engagement declines, sometimes precipitously at about the 12-18 month mark of employment. It often continues its decline, hitting bottom at the 3-5 year mark, with a corresponding spike in turnover. The 3-5 year mark is also when many organizations report that the employees are really beginning to significantly contribute on the job.

But here is some speculation for you. An employee gets hired, is very engaged from day one, with that engagement being driven by the excitement of a new activity, for some a new beginning. They begin to learn the tasks associated with the job and over a relatively short period the tasks and the work environment begins to generate feelings of familiarity. Short-term engagement, driven by excitement, gives way to long-term engagement, driven by familiarity. At this point the work environment can live up to expectations generating positive emotions surrounding that sense of familiarity, or it can fall short generating negative feelings. And by-and-large it is very difficult for each and every work environment to live up to everyone’s individual expectations, and so the norm on employee engagement is that it declines as people become more familiar with their jobs and often have to deal with the day-to-day frustrations that newer employees tend to be shielded from.

We don’t have to be satisfied with the norm though. And there are certainly benefits to be gained by those organizations who understand how to buck the trend, maintaining or creating a sense of positive familiarity with the work environment as the employee’s experience with and contribution to the organization grows.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm

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