Employee recognition programs are dangerous without structure

We’re always talking to businesses practicing recognition, but so often they’re not really using employee recognition programs. They’re not structured, or visible. Their recognition is all shooting from the hip with verbal, unaccountable employee recognition. While that kind of free and easy approach seems flexible and informal, there’s an insidious side to abandoning structure.

For an example of how a lack of structure can negatively affect employees, we’ll look to one of the most renowned video game developers in the world.

Life without levels

The company in question has no official hierarchy beyond their executive team. Employees aren’t assigned tasks or to projects. Instead, they choose where to expend their effort. Even their desks are literally on wheels to facilitate moving around the office to join the projects they feel invested in. The only requirement is that employees take ownership of the projects they invest time in, and take responsibility for their mistakes.

And it works, by and large. They’re one of the biggest names in the video games industry. An industry worth, globally, $81bn. They developed some of the most iconic video games of the modern era. They’re also home to the single most dominant video game distribution platform operating today.

However, there’s a downside to a lack of structure. Ex-employees have criticised their flat organisation and lack of a formal hierarchy as being a breeding ground for unaccountable, informal stressors.

Running out of Steam

Without a tangible structure or formal authority, informal authority will spring up. Multiple ex-employees of the aforementioned company have pointed out that the lack of a structure to adhere to means that informal, unspoken structures form around personalities, attitudes and skill sets instead.

As a result, employees on the wrong side of the invisible hierarchy end up feeling frustrated and maligned. Stressed and devalued. And, even worse, without any recourse or method of appeal. The colleagues informally hoarding power can always deflect an accusation by pointing to the official lack of hierarchy.

Employee recognition programs

This ties back into your employee recognition programs. It’s important to have structure, and for that structure to be transparent and open to accountability.

Shooting from the hip does have its upsides when it comes to recognition. You’ll always be in the moment, and your recognising of employees will always be at its most white-hot. We’ve spoken before about how being close to the moment an employee makes an impact is the best way to make recognition effective. But you should still be doing that as part of a wider employee recognition program.

That’s because without any structure, you’re also falling prey to the workings of your own mind. The swirl of pressures and needs in your own mind, unconsciously affecting how you perceive value in the workplace.

We talked recently about how we’re a raging pot of biases, victims of our own priorities and needs. That inherent bias can affect others in how we reward and recognise behaviour at work. Employees that satisfy your immediate needs and most pressing concerns will end up being unfairly, but unconsciously, prioritised in recognition.

Lacking an employee recognition program means you can’t make recognition public, accountable, and visibly values-driven. When employees start to feel like they’re not being recognised for their efforts, or that recognition isn’t issued in line with your company values, they haven’t got an objective standard to point to unless there’s some structure.

Formal employee recognition programs alleviate that concern by giving both the recognising managers, and the recognised employees, a central and visible directory of recognition in the company. If an employee feels unrecognised, or feels that recognition is issued inappropriately, you have a standard resource anyone can look to.