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One of the questions I get asked most frequently when I conduct training for a business is “Should you show appreciation to someone who isn't performing well?”
Differences of opinion exist among people who study the interrelationships among recognition, employee engagement and appreciation, especially when finer issues are raised, like “Should you recognize an employee if they are not doing well in all areas?” and “Is appreciation independent of performance?” To address such issues, I think we need to keep two foundational principles in mind:
Both realities mean different things for recognizing performance. First, wise supervisors do not communicate recognition without considering an employee’s performance. For example, why would you reward an employee who does not show up to work regularly or on time? Some bottom-line behaviors constitute minimally acceptable job performance, and showing up is one of them.
Conversely, if employees are only recognized when they produce results above and beyond the norm, they begin to feel that only super achievers are valued.
When thinking about ways to recognize adequate, but not exceptional, performance, it can help to think like a good youth sports coach. When a child is learning a sport, good coaches do not berate or punish the young athlete if he or she cannot perform some higher-level skills. Rather, the coach encourages and supports good effort and behaviors that approximate what is expected from star athletes. The good coach tries to shape a young athlete's performance closer to the ideal but does not penalize falling short of the ideal as long as the child tries. Taking this approach prevents the player from growing discouraged and giving up.
The same approach should work with employees who are growing into their positions, or even just learning what "work" is really about. Supervisors who focus on and encourage actions that indicate an employee is moving in the right direction has every reason to expect improving performance. Offering gentle corrective instruction on critical skills that are still lagging when appropriate will also benefit the employee and the organization.
Finally, appreciation can be expressed for characteristics not directly related to productivity. I personally enjoy working with cheerful people more than grumps and with warm, friendly colleagues instead of cool and indifferent ones. So I express appreciation to colleague for displaying these qualities even if they are not the highest producers on the team.
Paul White, PhD, is a psychologist, speaker, and consultant who has co-written The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and Sync or Swim: A Fable About Workplace Communication and Coming Together in a Crisis with Gary Chapman. You can contact White at (316) 681-4431 or through www.appreciationatwork.com. An earlier version of this article appears on that site.