Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Recognition

Recognition, Familiarity and Employee Engagement

leave a comment »

“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:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm


with one comment

[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”]

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”


One of the basic fundamentals in achieving high performance from individuals is to provide them recognition for a job well done, sincere meaningful recognition. Being given recognition becomes part of the equity equation as people consider whether they are being treated fairly by an organization. Recognition can consist of psychological recognition, monetary rewards, advancement, development opportunities as well as a host of other possibilities.

There are two classes of rewards and recognition – those that can be tied to performance, such as merit increases, and those that should be independent of performance – those that are a standard that should be made equally available to all.  For instance, if you were running a mining operation you would not hand out safety equipment as recognition for good performance, rather all miners would be given equal access to the safety equipment available.  The ability to operate safely on the job and access to safety equipment is independent of individual performance.

I had one client that had tied recognition, the score you received on your performance appraisal, to the health care benefits you received. If you scored highly on your performance appraisal and got sick you were flown to Singapore where you received the best medical treatment available. If you did not score highly on your performance appraisal local health care was made available, which was definitely below world-class status. After a few conversations with the management of this organization, I convinced them that these 2 elements should not be tied together.

This was a clear example that recognition on the job (in this case the ratings on your performance appraisal) could have an impact on your life expectancy. But there has come to light additional new evidence. Matthew D. Rablen and Adrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick, found that winning a Nobel Prize can add as much as 2 years to your life. When candidates are nominated for a Nobel Prize they do not know it, as the lists of nominees are not released for fifty years after the Prize is awarded. This sets up a situation where the winners (who know they won) can be compared against those nominated (who don’t know that they were nominated). Those who won and received the associated recognition lived longer. “The only possible explanation is that the enhanced status conferred by a Nobel somehow improves a person’s health. Walking across the platform in Stockholm does wonders” said Andrew Oswald, one of the authors of the study. Remember that the nominees are no slouches, they are all very well thought of in their respective fields, but the status associated with the Nobel, somehow provides a little bit extra.

Given that many organizations are keen on improving the health of the workforce to reduce health insurance rates and to raise productivity, I wonder if they have ever viewed providing recognition as a health related practice. Also importantly can organizations make their rewards and recognition confer that little something extra? Could the budgets associated with recognition be offset against health insurance increases? Or on the flip side could organizations that provide no recognition be blamed for ill health or hastening the death of an employee?  The human brain’s impact on internal bodily processes is simply not to be underestimated.

Sometimes recognition comes from unexpected sources. Abraham Lincoln when faced with many rivals within his own party for the position of President decided that the best place for them was within his cabinet. By keeping his rivals close to him, he could keep an eye on them but he was also telling them something. He was providing them recognition of their abilities and saying that he wanted them working with him, because he valued their input, rather then being at odds with them.

There is a myth that exists around brilliant people (maybe even just smart people) and recognition. It is that these people are intrinsically motivated and that means that they do not need or desire recognition for a job well done. Doing good work by itself is rewarding enough. (I get this feeling that this myth was developed by people who feel somewhat intimidated by really smart people). While there may be a few people like that out there, my experience is that the vast majority, while they may be intrinsically motivated, like nothing more than a pat on the back and other recognition for doing good work. They, like us, put their pants on one leg at a time in the morning (assuming you are wearing pants) and while they may really like their independence, they really like people recognizing their contributions as well.

Recognition is one of those fundamentals that cut across organizations, cultures, occupations, geographies, generations and genders. It works and has an impact on your work environment as well as in your personal space. The next time you have an opportunity, and want to tell someone that they did a good job and you appreciate them, don’t hold it in, let it out and see what kind of benefits you can spread.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 21, 2010 at 6:13 pm

%d bloggers like this: