Hands to the Fire: The Dark Side of Employee Recognition

April 26, 2016 Chris Spann

Are you aware of the dark side of employee recognition? It’s lurking behind a directive that has taken on a decidedly negative meaning in recent years. I’ll bet most of you reading this article have had a boss over the course of your life tell you “I’m going to start holding you accountable” and for many of you, your insides curled as you heard this. Accountability is an extremely important part of team cohesion, yet too many of us are either terrified of it, or refuse to hold ourselves accountable for fear of failure. When did the word become synonymous with walking the plank? It’s probably nobody’s fault, but it seems somewhere along the way managers and their employees have lost sight of what accountability actually means.   


Let’s talk about this word in black and white, without the dictionary and without the crippling fears of the American workforce. Accountability means taking ownership of your successes and your failures.

In the context of employee recognition we talk a lot about the importance of celebrating employee accomplishments. When a peer helps you out, or when an employee does an outstanding job on a project, it's important to recognize their accomplishments. However it’s also important to acknowledge and analyze when projects or strategies fail as a team. I’m sure many of us have had an experience in which a project went south and members of our group or team refrained from detailing what went wrong out of fear of being shamed. What if there was a better alternative?

Research from the Harvard Business Review investigated the factors and behaviors found in the most cohesive teams and their findings were directly at odds with our fears about the meaning of accountability. The researchers categorized the teams they observed into three groups based on performance and cohesion: high, average and weaker performing teams. On the high performing teams the vast majority of performance problems were managed by peers, and management seldom intervened. On the average performing teams, bosses served as the main source of accountability, and on the weakest teams there’s little to no acknowledgement or discussion of failures.

There's a very strong relationship between the presence of peer accountability and team cohesion. One reason for this relationship is a psychological phenomenon called the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. In the workplace when a mishap isn’t acknowledged, our brains tend to take shortcuts and make assumptions to help us understand the situation. When we try to rationalize the mistakes other people make, we're more likely (without explanatory information) to assume that those mistakes are due to internal factors, or shortcomings of that individual. In contrast, when we rationalize our own mistakes we are more likely to attribute them to external factors, or situational limitations that caused the mistake. For example, when our coworker John turns in a report late we are more likely to assume (at first) it’s because he’s lazy and unprofessional. However when we turn in reports late we are much more likely to remember the traffic on the interstate, or the crisis we had to help our children with the night before.  


This attribution error is important when considering a culture of accountability because accountability prevents this problem entirely, by presenting and analyzing the situational factors that made the tasks at hand difficult. Cohesive teams regularly hold these difficult conversations together, and find them to be very productive.  

Failures can serve as massive educational opportunities, and high performing teams try to create an environment where admitting one’s shortcomings and missteps is encouraged. The relationships that exist on these high performing teams are built on mutual trust and respect, not assumptions. These coworkers are confident in their abilities and those of their team members, and so they understand admitting a mistake or acknowledging someone else’s error presents an opportunity for growth, analysis, and innovation.  

It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.

-Bill Gates

Recognition of employee success and failure are two aspects of employee accountability that have to exist in tandem, otherwise companies run the risk of developing cultural imbalances that can hurt productivity. For example: An organization that disciplines it’s employees for failing to reach performance benchmarks but doesn’t recognize individual accomplishments runs the risk of alienating its employees and creating unnecessary barriers between management and employees. In contrast, an organization that emphasizes recognition for successes but doesn’t examine critical improvement areas runs the risk of building a culture that doesn’t critically examine its key decisions.

So how can you turn employees into a high-performing team of accountability experts?

  1. Recognize accountable behavior. More often than not, having a crucial, and respectful conversation about performance or output takes some serious backbone - so let your company know you approve of these behaviors.

  2. Admit when you’re wrong. You want to build up the impression that your team finds solutions to complex problems based on the strongest ideas, not just seniority. When managers or senior team members publically admit mistakes or errors in thinking it builds a level of moral authority that’s great for building a culture of accountability.

  3. Quit gossiping. Many of us have gossiped about coworkers more than we’d care to admit, and this behavior is especially problematic for team dynamics. Since the feedback is not directed at the person who needs that feedback it does not allow an opportunity for solution-oriented thinking.


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About the Author

Chris Spann

Christopher Spann is a Graphic Designer, Content Writer, and Marketer for Perksww.com

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