Updated on 01.27.09

The Need for Recognition

Trent Hamm

Nearly all of us work hard for a living. We go to work, throw at least some of our heart, soul, and energy into the task at hand, and go home depleted of some of our energy, but with a paycheck in hand. Some people enjoy this routine and others do not.

Having worked a lot of jobs in my own life – and witnessed many, many other workers at various stages in life – I’ve realized a few things about the nature of work – and whether or not people love their jobs or not.

The biggest factor, as far as I can tell? Recognition.

Over and over again, the same pattern repeats itself. A worker decides to go the extra mile at work, doing a particular task with aplomb. Perhaps they’ll even do it a few times.

Sometimes, their supervisors and/or peers will recognize this hard work and compliment the worker on it. That’s good. Perhaps they’ll even talk up that hard work to others. That’s even better. Perhaps this hard work will be rewarded with a perk or two – a better parking spot, an “employee of the month” recognition, perhaps even a promotion. That’s great!

People that get a bit of recognition tend to keep pushing hard on their tasks. They like being seen as successful – and they want more of it.

At other times, a person’s hard work will be ignored – or perhaps it’s viewed as expected behavior, with no extra recognition. For the most part, that person will regress to doing the minimum needed to keep the job. Rather than seeing it as a challenge with a tasty carrot, that job begins to be seen as a burden.

This need for recognition runs through our lives. It feels a lot better to get positive attention from other people than it does to be met with indifference or with negative attention. It drives a lot of the little choices we make, too.

That drive for recognition is a big reason that many people make poor financial choices. Buying a late model used minivan won’t wow the neighbors, but a new Lexus SUV will get their attention. A small house won’t get attention – but a beautiful, big, exquisitely decorated one will get you some positive comments. I’ve fallen into this trap myself as a young adult, often buying gadgets partially for the ability to impress others and earn me some short-term recognition.

The painful truth, though, is that such recognition is fleeting. After the impressed people have gone away and your big purchase is forgotten about, you’re left with some big bills and a budget that’s being stretched to its limit to cover it. The recognition is over but you’re still paying for it.

Consider another path. Go for the low end on your purchases. Get that late model used car instead of the new one. Buy a smaller house. These purchases won’t get you that immediate recognition, but it does earn you several other things. You’re not stuck with the big bills, giving you breathing room to save for the future. That can directly lead you to an earlier retirement or to other things that you personally value – travel, financial security, and so on.

Perhaps more interesting is that I’ve found that good financial choices end up earning you recognition in unexpected ways. We’ve saved a lot of money by buying a reasonable home and holding onto our older cars. This has enabled us to do a lot of other things in our life. I’ve been able to switch careers – without our frugal choices, I would have never been able to choose to become a writer. We’ve also been able to become more involved in our community, donating money to worthy causes and finding other ways to help out.

Not only have those things earned us recognition, they’re also very much in line with our core values. Most importantly, though, these choices haven’t left us facing a pile of frightening bills and a subsequent shackling of our lives to a strong need for income.

The take home message? Recognition is important to all of us – it often drives the choices we make in life. But if you take some time to step back from the appeal of immediate recognition and look at the long term, it’s often much more worthwhile to make the financially conservative choice instead of spending more than we should.

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  1. plonkee says:

    And also, giving yourself the recognition you deserve is a good idea. Sometimes people at work don’t appreciate what I do in the way that I would like, but I try and do some things somewhere primarily to please myself, and then recognise my own talents and effort.

  2. D Shah says:

    Awesome article Trent. I have been a long time lurker here and you first part of the post compelled me to leave a comment.
    I am in the same boat as you described earlier in the article. Lots of hardwork and no recognition. Well, I guess its a part of our corporate culture.

  3. Ian says:

    I think giving and getting recognition is something core to each and everyone of us. However I also thing so many poeople do in fact subsititue possesions for that feeling wich leads us down theat road to financial ruin. An excellent post, thanks!

  4. tom says:

    Great post, I think too many of us do jobs and work primarily for the money. We should focus on providing value and enriching others.

    Its sad to see so many people literally enslaved to their jobs, work, bills and money. They think money is like the most valuable thing on the planet.
    Wrong, money is a piece of paper that you can wipe your ass with, literally. You can’t eat it or drink it, just exchange it for hard goods.

  5. Frugal Dad says:

    The worst possible scenario in a work setting is when you bust your butt and someone else takes the credit (particularly hard to swallow when that person is your boss). It might be your job to make them look good, but a little recognition for your effort goes a long way.

    I alway liked Dave Ramsey’s feelings on buying something for recognition. He often wonders out loud on his show why we buy new, fancy cars to impress stramgers at a red light.

  6. meg says:

    I really identify with the first part of this post and the discussion about recognition at work.
    The first couple years I have been at my job I was recieving acknowledgement for my contributions, this past year about I have recieved very little.
    It has in fact made work seem more like work. and generally made me more negative.
    On the up side once I realized I was being negative and why, I could at least change my attitude.

    Another bonus is that I resisted buying stuff to make up to it (thanks TSD)

    Great post

  7. DB Cooper says:

    I’m a teacher in public education. Very rarely do we get any kind of good press (do something wrong, and it’s front page news!). My principal tells us all the time we need to “toot our own horn” because no one else is going to do it for us. Personally, I know what I do, and I know that what I do makes a difference for each of my students – for some in ways that I’ll never truly know. But that’s what makes it worthwhile to me.

    As for recognition for my lifestyle choices (purchases, home, etc) – I don’t need it. The personal gratification I feel in making sound choices is plenty for me.

  8. Jeff says:

    The idea that any such recognition only brings temporary satisfaction was what Maslow was addressing in his work related to self-actualization.

    I agree with those who echo the sentiment that recognizing oneself is of utmost importance. As long as you understand and appreciate the contributions you are making, then you should feel good at the end of the day. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves of how we are making a difference.

  9. We can definitely shape our repeated behaviors by actively seeking out the type of recognition that will reinforce good choices. For instance, I don’t impress anyone by driving an old car or eating lunch at work, but I can reinforce those behaviors by visiting a financial planner and getting kudos for my saving rate or seeking out blogs with similar-minded folks who value those decisions.

    We get what we seek out, in many instances, so we may as well seek out what’s good for us.

  10. Letting go of my imagined need for recognition via retail therapy was the most freeing thing I’ve ever done.

    At 33, I’m debt free except a mortgage that will be paid off in less than 2 years. I’ve got solar panels that will cut my energy costs by more than half. I’ve got cash on hand to cover several years of living expenses. I know how to cook, garden, can, and sew. Most importantly, I have peace of mind and I don’t care if people think I’m weird. I’d hate to be under a pile of debt in this economic climate.

    Who’s cool now?

  11. My desire for any type of recognition flew out the window about the same day I turned 30. There is a certain point in life when you realize life is not about proving yourself, but instead influencing others, making an impact, helping people, and so on and so forth. None of which can happen if you are focused on earning recognition. If you look at people who are great leaders, their individual achievements are largely forgotten, but they are remembered for the way they shaped the world.

  12. Hannah says:

    Thanks for a great article, Trent. It really resounded with me, as I have long known that my greatest motivators are my needs for recognition and achievement (as per McClelland’s Theory of Needs).

    Over the years, I have been in workplaces where reconition has been enacted well – but mostly very poorly, like the $20 gift voucher a friend received for 14yrs of quality service… He resigned.

    The tough work for managers lies in understanding the individual and deciphering the work culture to best meet that need. A number of simple questions can act as pointers – eg. Does collective recognition mean more than individual to that person? Are they a private person or someone who prefers a public fanfare? Do they respect the person giving the accolade?

    Recognition is most valued when it is delivered in a way that is meaningful to the recipient.

  13. Steph says:

    That’s so funny that you posted about this today. I literally just got home from an after school assembly (I’m a teacher) about recognizing people for the difference they make. I’m a first year teacher so I’m not the best and my class is a bit difficult, so when my colleagues recognize me for my hard work and progress it totally makes my day. Of course this translates to anything, financial progress as you say or progress in weight loss or professional progress as I describe. I know how important recognition is to me and I’ve been really making an effort to recognize others.

  14. Rebecca says:

    I completely agree! We are conditioned from birth to respond to positive recognition. It’s amazing how far it can go to boost performance.

  15. Rebecca says:

    I just recently heard that an acquaintance had lost her job. For some time now, she had been told often by people who knew her well that she should try consulting. She was well respected and it would probably be easier for her as a single parent.

    Once she lost her job, she immediately began putting out feelers and getting very positive reactions. When, lo and behold, the Federal Department of Labor came looking for her because of a presentation she’d made to them as part of her VOLUNTEER activities.

    They offered her a full time job – she did not approach them and they were not aware she was out of work. She did not want to go back to full time employment before trying out the consulting bit, since she’d received such positive responses, so she offered to work for them 3 days a week. They accepted that arrangement and will pay her about the same as she was making working full time at her previous job.

    Sometimes, you may have to seek feedback and sometimes it comes from unexpected directions at unexpected times. I think that if you are not receiving it at your work then, rather than regressing to a minimum level of quality, you may want to seek a different employer. Even in these uneasy economic times, it probably doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes open for other options.

  16. Tom says:

    I actually know a few people who bought fancy cars a few years ago, when the economy was good, and liked to show them off.
    Now that we’re in recession, they’re not so proud anymore, and you can see a bit of worry on their faces.

  17. Oskar says:

    We live in a small town, eat most meals in and we have the most boooring car of all my friends but later this year we will spend 4 months on vacation in Mexico with family….I think we made the right decision….

  18. Ken Silver says:

    I smiled when I read this post. Today I bought a Lexus SUV for my wife! How coincidental is that? The good thing is that we don’t need to impress anyone but ourselves. Buying to make someone else jealous is making a rod for your own back as the need for ego-stroking always magnifies itself.

  19. Hi Trent,

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your insight. Everything we do is recognized. We may not receive instant human feedback but the grand sum of our productive acts will eventually lead us to our goals, if we make them definite enough and believe that they will occur. The universe is always taking a tally and will eventually return to us whatever we focus on, whether it’s human recognition, wealth, or any goal.


  20. Paul says:

    I find recognition to often be an almost random event at my workplace, which is unsettling. Many times I work hard on something and produce a neat solution to a hard problem and get no recognition. But on the other hand, I have also received recognition at times for simple things that didn’t require much effort on my part. Recognition needs to be honest in identifying good work, and not cheapened by given out for mediocre work.

  21. Goal Hunter says:

    Turn this around on employers and I think you have a really cheap way for a company to improve morale. Compliments and thank-yous are free and go a long way. I don’t understand why some managers or companies are so stingy with recognition.

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