31 January 2013

Recognition Rewards and the Compliance Culture

It’s an exercise I use in leadership facilitation to illustrate the difference between organizational cultures of commitment and compliance. Imagine you’ve been invited to meet the one person in the world you’ve always dreamed of meeting. More than that, you’ve been asked to pick that person up at the airport, chauffeur them to the corporate office, host them for the day, and have dinner with them in the evening. A full day, one-on-one with your all-time hero(ine)! On the morning of that fateful day, you wake up extra early, get yourself ready with the perfect outfit, and head out to the airport. On the way… BOOM!… you have a car breakdown. What do you do? Because you are not going to spoil the day, you would likely ditch your vehicle, call a cab, meet your celebrity on schedule and have an outstanding day. A week later, since you did such a fine job with the celebrity, your boss invites you to do the same thing again but with the one person you would least like to spend even five minutes with. On the day, you hope your alarm clock fails (it doesn’t), you don’t bother to even do your hair, and on the way to the airport, car breaks down again. Do you call a cab? Do you flag down a passing motorist? No, you call in: “Sorry boss. Car broke down. Can’t make it.”

The first instance is about commitment; the second, compliance.

It’s the commitment culture to which great leaders strive. It’s that special environment in which people feel valued and appreciated, where anything is possible because everyone pitches in to make those alternative futures indeed become possible. In a commitment culture, mutual recognition and appreciation are baked in to such an extent that they are simply the ways in which individuals treat each other every day. On the other hand, in a culture of compliance, external mechanisms are required to ensure that people are compliant with what the enterprise demands of them. Unlike a commitment culture in which intrinsic motivation provides the primary impetus, compliance culture necessitates sometimes elaborate systems of carrots and sticks - extrinsic motivators - that attempt to align individuals’ actions with what are often imagined abstractions of mission-oriented behaviours.

Which brings us to recognition rewards. In some corporate cultures, it has become common practice to award tangible acknowledgement of contributions above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. Someone who works long hours on a high-profile project is given a cash bonus, or significant-valued gift card, or a company-paid night on the town with their spouse or other important-person-in-their-life. It is a way of acknowledging the extra value that the person contributed – often on their own time – to the success of something that is important to the company. What could be wrong with that?

Too often, in my experience, such recognition rewards are artefacts of an organization that has developed a highly task-oriented, compliance culture. Relationship and people-orientation has become so foreign that simple and authentic gratitude is beyond the capability of most people. Because the organization’s members are systemically incapable of expressing sincere gratitude, the recognition reward becomes a routinized, corporate surrogate for recognition of a job well done. In a dysfunctional, unhealthy culture, bribery is a proxy for true appreciation.

In the larger context, recognition rewards highlight the difference between compliance and commitment. In a culture of commitment, this bribery-recognition would not be necessary (although additional, creative forms of augmented compensation are certainly appreciated, even in a commitment culture). In a culture of compliance, such carrot-and-stick encouragement mechanisms are essential to enforcing the requisite conformity to management-dictated behaviours. In a culture of commitment, literally anything is possible.

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