In praise of praise, OR at what cost disengagement?

“The cost of disengagement: $250-$300 billion per year.” – Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, PhD

Sometimes I come across a statistic or item that sticks with me. I mull it over, digest it, and sometimes…I blog. Such is the case with the data mentioned above. I found this in the book, How Full Is Your Bucket?.  The authors use the metaphor of a bucket and a dipper to address how even the briefest of our daily interactions can affect our health, productivity, and even our longevity. And because they are/were both Gallup Inc. researchers specializing in employee engagement, they address engagement.

So, let’s drill down a bit on the statistic presented above. The figure is for the US economy, and is based on the book authors’ estimates of 22 million extremely negative, or what Gallup researchers refer to as “actively disengaged,” employees. Further, the authors suggest this is a conservative estimate, based on the notion that disengaged employees simply report to work and do nothing. It is likely, however, that many of these actively disengaged employees also sabotage the organization’s business through such actions as indifference to customer needs or interrupting the work of engaged employees, rendering them less productive. If we account for this sabotage, suggest the authors, and add things like injury, illness, fraud and turnover, the figure is probably much higher – an estimated 10% of the US Gross Domestic Product. Clearly, the economy in the US (and in other countries) cannot bear this loss.

How does disengagement occur? One reason, (and it is one that we’ve mentioned in our blogs), is the lack of opportunity to do one’s work using personal strengths in the context of one’s job. Another reason, according to the authors, is employees receive little recognition of their work. In fact, the #1 reason people leave their jobs is because they do not feel appreciated – and this comes from the US Department of Labor (2003)! Apparently, praise for good work is rare. In a poll cited by the authors, 65% of Americans disclosed they’d received no recognition for their good work in the past year.

As a former manager, I know that not all work is “good” work. Nor do I advocate for the Lake Wobegon effect, in which people have a tendency to over-estimate their achievement and capabilities in relation to others. However, when 65% of respondents claim to have received no recognition for their good work, I assume that at least some of that work was good! It begs the question, why is something so simple, like recognizing good work, overlooked?

Perhaps some managers think good work need not be recognized because it is expected from employees. Instead, many managers feel it is their job to focus on recognizing poor work. Sadly, this focus on what’s wrong, particularly in the absence of no recognition of what’s right, does little to build employee confidence or foster creativity and productivity. Another reason may be that the organization has no formal recognition program to bring attention to good work and for managers to rely on. Please allow me to go out on a limb here and suggest that the 65% of respondents were not necessarily looking for a plaque with their name on it, a gift card, or a prime parking space for a month. Instead, simple things, either public or private, like a brief conversation with the employee regarding the quality of their work, or a mention of good work in a team meeting, or a note to your boss alerting him or her to an employee’s good work would greatly contribute to the employee’s engagement.

Considering the cost to the organization (and the US economy) for unrecognized good work and the resulting disengagement, a bit of praise for work well done is cost-efficient and beneficial. It doesn’t require doing cartwheels, but it may create a few!