As I wrote the title to this post, I knew many of my readers would dismiss it as nothing more than psychobabble. Recent research out of Singapore Management University (SMU), however, shows “deviant behaviours, or behaviours initiated by employees that contravene organisational norms, can collectively cost organisations billions of dollars per year.” Think Enron or, at the industry level, the recent mortgage debacle that sparked this latest recession.

Why do some choose such deviant behaviour that can ultimately destroy their own livelihood? I would suggest extreme self interest, corruptibility and a lack of concern the company and all it supports (other employees, customers, partners, shareholders, etc.). The SMU research suggests another reason – a person’s self-esteem. The gist of the research is:

“If an individual’s self-esteem is contingent upon being a competent employee – what they refer to as having workplace-contingent self-esteem – then regardless of whether self-esteem is low or high, they will be less likely to engage in deviant behaviours. But when an employee’s self-esteem was low on its own and not contingent on the workplace, more deviance was reported. However, there may be special conditions where workplace-contingent self-esteem might bring about a different kind of deviance. Accounting fraud, polluting the environment to cut costs and cheating customers to close a sale, for instance, represent forms of workplace deviance which can be construed to benefit the organisation.”

What does all this mean? Some employees – those with low self-esteem not contingent on the workplace – must be rooted out and helped to find a new situation before their behaviour can significantly impact productivity, morale and even workplace culture. For the others whose self-esteem is contingent on the company, feed their psychic income needs for social acceptance, self-esteem and self realisation through strategic recognition.

Please do not misunderstand. This is where the “strategic” component of recognition becomes critical or you could end up with the “different kind of deviance” described above. You must positively reinforce employees only for those actions that reflect the company values while achieving the strategic objectives. This approach ensures employees who, for example, increase productivity but do so by harming the environment will not be rewarded for their efforts. Values-based recognition is the key to ensuring employees display the right behaviours in achieving the company goals.

Are your psychic income needs met at work? Too many companies only focus on meeting compensation needs (and even less on that in today’s economy). The recession provides only greater reason to bridge the gap in employee needs through strategic recognition.

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