When Employees Trip Over Work

By Dirk Olin
Tune in, turn on, drop out. The famous ‘60s aphorism was a rallying cry for drugs and the rejection of social norms from a generation that perceived its environment as stultifying and opaque. The kids just didn’t feel understood. But, according to recent research, you don’t need psychedelic substances to become hallucinatory and anti-social. Just 15 minutes in a sensory deprivation tank will do the trick.
In a study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in October 2009, psychologists placed 19 healthy volunteers in a room that was utterly lightless and soundless. Duration: 15 minutes. Result: Absent the usual battery of sensory stimulation to which they were accustomed, many of the subjects experienced visual hallucinations. On the emotional side of the ledger, they reported paranoia and a rapid onset of depression.
“This is a pretty robust finding,” wrote psychiatrist Paul Fletcher of the University of Cambridge, an expert in psychosis who was not involved in the experiment. “It appears that, when confronted by lack of sensory patterns in our environment, we have a natural tendency to superimpose our own patterns.”         
As reported in Wired, observers concluded that the findings support a prevailing hypothesis that hallucinations occur when the brain misidentifies the source of experience, a concept known as “faulty source monitoring.” Psychologist Oliver Mason of the University College London cut to the pith: “This is the idea that hallucinations come about because we misidentify the source of our own thoughts. So basically something that actually is initiated within us gets misidentified as from the outside.”
I hear you muttering. “Why am I reading this in HRO Today?” Well, it’s not because I spent the morning in a deprivation tank—or visited a street pharmacist on my way to work. It’s because this month’s issue is focused on recognition and rewards.
As revealed in our cover story by managing editor Debbie Bolla (“Recognizing a Need,” page 24), one company’s experience alone demonstrates the connection. When ConAgra Foods Canada (think Chef Boyardee and Blue Bonnet) surveyed its employees about the company’s recognition program, the vast majority of respondents opined that the program neither tracked with the company’s business goals nor even provided the basic recognition of teams and individuals that constitutes the bare minimum of such an effort.
The damage was central, not collateral. At ConAgra, program participation was close to nil, and employee engagement was in the … tank. In a corollary to the self-superimposition of patterns that accompanies faulty source monitoring, unrecognized and unrewarded employees will fill the workplace values vacuum with their own standards.
How, and with whose help, ConAgra fixed this problem is an object lesson for any human resources leader. And a bird’s eye view of which other providers are leading the market for recognition and reward solutions can be found on page 12 in our annual Baker’s Dozen Customer Satisfaction Ratings.
The basics of successful recognition are well known. It needs to occur in as close to real time as possible, or the desired incentive effect is lost. It is most effective when public and specific. Rewards should offer genuine value (whether psychological or remunerative), and, when tangible, they should be easy to use. Gift cards that only work at a wholesale outlet in Tuscaloosa—or that expire by month’s end—often do more harm than good.
Above all, though, the connection between the company’s core values and its
recognition standards must be clear. Without that, you’re keeping your employees in the dark. In which case, they might well turn on and drop out.

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