Are Your Co-workers Making You Sweat?—Social Comparison vs. Social Recognition in the Modern Workplace

March 11, 2016 - 6 minute read - Posted by

Does your organization run a recognition program? If so, what does it look like; championing the ‘Employee of the Month’, ‘Top Seller’, ‘Staffer of the day’ or giving everyone that does great work a pat on the back?

While recognition programs are a great way to provide extrinsic motivation to teams and a colleagues, and focus a team on one single goal, organizations need to be careful they don’t become a zero sum game.

Recognition programs have the ability to create a sense of belonging and bring satisfaction to employees by recognizing the work they’ve done. However, it is not unlikely that the intention facilitating healthy competition for the throne of ‘Employee of the Month’ can quickly turn sour when the ‘I win, you lose’ mentality comes into play.

Are your employees suffering from the mental fatigue and exhaustion of social comparison in the workplace?

Focusing on Winning and Competition

Winning and pursuing competition has positive connotations, but they risk bringing about long-term negative side effects to your team. Winners like our ‘Employee of the Month’ gain social comparison rather than healthy social recognition from their peers. Fact of the matter is, there are many poorly executed employee recognition programs out there with good intentions.

According to research results from a study conducted by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist of University of California, Berkeley:

“When we win in competition, in particular when we establish we are above others in rank, we will feel more powerful. And dozens of studies have found that the simple feeling of power makes people feel above the scrutiny of others and act in impulsive, self-gratifying and unethical ways. Feelings of power, whether it comes from wealth, a person’s position in a hierarchical structure or in this case competition, can indeed lead to various abuses like lying and stealing.”

In many ways, employee recognition doesn’t have to be characterized by exclusivity. As a team, the hope is always to have all its members performing beyond expectations—so why not make it so they could all be winning?

The Two Types of Success

  • The first type of success is based off of social comparison—“Am I better than my peers?”
  • The second type of success is based off of social recognition—“Am I better than myself last quarter?”

Success based off of social recognition can be achieved through having a clear objective for which we’re able to achieve a measurable result. There are a number of performance management and methodologies that can be integrated with social recognition programs in the workplace. SMART goals and OKRs are just a few that you may have already heard of.

Here are 7Geese, we’ve chosen to use OKRs as part of our performance management platform and have taken it upon ourselves to recognize our peers for not only their outstanding performance but also the desire to help others reach their objectives. Adding recognition to your performance management system is a great informal way to ensure employees help their teams by recognizing their efforts for training, being a great coach and raising the bar to their peers. We believe the right social recognition program for an organization should allow everyone the opportunity to win.

Provide Opportunities to be Recognized

At the end of the day, it isn’t about rewarding every employee or just having one ‘Employee of the Month’. It’s about the method we use to identify wins in the modern workplace. Where employees can either sweat buckets worrying about how they measure up to a colleague or focus on their own successes.

A good mentality to have is to see more employee engagement on the basis of individual objectives and key results at align to company goals. A common issue with peer driven recognition programs is they have very little quantifiable results from their objectives. The idea is to provide employees with the ability to give kudos to their peers so that everyone has the opportunity to gain social recognition and evaluate performance based on objectives that align with the recognized company values.

Regardless of whether you’ve chosen social comparison or social recognition, the recognition program is only as effective as the health and achievement levels of the employees participating in them. It takes a good team to decide on a recognition program that helps the company achieve its ideal outcomes but it takes a great team to consider how the program ultimately affects the company’s invaluable assets—human capital.

If you’re interested in learning more alternatives to recognition in the modern workplace, join our recognition webinar on March 31, 2016