5 Straightforward Ways to Make Recognition More Meaningful

Employee recognition isn’t a new idea, but as a practice, it’s experiencing a renaissance worldwide.

Employee recognition is the rewarding of employees for excellent performance or exemplary behavior in the workplace.

Until recently, most employee recognition programs (87 percent, according to research from Bersin by Deloitte) focused primarily on tenure. A large number of those programs still do. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with recognizing someone for the years of service they’ve contributed to your organization, it’s worth stepping back and considering the fundamental intent behind celebrating tenure.

Is the goal truly to celebrate your colleague’s ability to stick around and hold down a chair, or is there more to it? If it’s just about how long someone’s been hanging around, you might as well throw a party for the old breakroom microwave that has been chugging along faithfully since the office opened.

Realistically, nobody celebrates the old microwave because the true aim of these tenure-based initiatives is to celebrate the contributions someone made during their tenure — and despite the cost and the effort involved, most of these programs fail to recognize those contributions in a meaningful way.

Recognition’s greatest power lies in its ability help employees see and appreciate the value, meaning, and purpose of the contributions they make, and to know that their colleagues see and appreciate it too. That’s why organizations are beginning to shift away from the tenure paradigm to a strategy that focuses on recognizing contributions in a more timely, specific, visible, and ultimately rewarding format.

With these principles in place, recognition becomes a more effective tool for improving engagement and retention, plus an avenue for timely, motivational feedback that annual performance reviews alone can’t really provide. So how do you apply those principles and make sure you and your team are getting the greatest possible benefit from recognition?

Inclusivity: Involve the Whole Organization

Implementing a formal employee recognition program is one (absolutely crucial) element of fostering a greater culture of recognition. In order to build that kind of culture in earnest, you need participation from all levels of the organization.

Senior leaders are also your organization’s culture leaders, and for better or worse, they’re driving the cultural conversation at work. If team leads are encouraging participation in a program, but mid and senior leaders are notably absent, it makes a statement that employee recognition isn’t truly important at the highest levels of your organization.

The same goes for a program that senior leadership promotes, but line managers, team leads, and individual contributors snub. That paints a picture of an out-of-touch leadership craze that nobody takes seriously or expects to last.

Research shows that employees find recognition coming from direct supervisors and senior leadership to be important, but recognition from peers is what motivates employees to go the extra mile. That’s why it’s so important to have participation and buy-in from stakeholders at all levels, from the CEO to last week’s new hire.

Employees fistbumping over a desk

Rewards: Give Meaningful Employee Recognition

Rewards are the key to sustained, enthusiastic engagement in a recognition program. As meaningful as it is for employee recognition to happen, it’s more engaging and sustainable over time when there is a reward to associate with it. We’ve actually done some research that backs that up.

If you’re worried about that driving up costs, don’t. It turns out the rewards don’t have to be large to be effective — in fact, it’s often best if rewards aren’t large enough to significantly raise the stakes or alter the compensation landscape on your team. The best rewards find a balance between “large enough to be meaningful” and “small enough to be plentiful.”

If the stakes are raised too high, recognition can become a competition. While some good-spirited competition can be fun and motivating, competing for a large prize can shift the focus away from the work. That focal shift is why winner-takes-all frameworks don’t often inspire teams as intended.

When implementing or updating an employee recognition system, consider the positive impact rewards have on participation and find the balance between meaningful and plentiful. This balance can look different from company to company, so it’s best to consider rewards that fit your team and organizational culture, rather than attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all dollar amount.

Timeliness/Frequency: Make Employee Recognition a Habit

The more time that passes between an employee’s contribution and the recognition they receive for it, the less potential that recognition has for positive impact. In order for it to be most effective and meaningful, recognition should be given in the moment, or as close to the moment as possible. Neuroscientist, Paul Zack, studied the effects of recognition on the brain and stated “a way to harness the reinforcing effects of dopamine is to engage in recognition close in time to the goal being met or exceeded. It needs to occur consistently and promptly” to have maximum impact.

To be most effective and meaningful, employee recognition should be given in the moment.

Have you ever put a massive amount of work into something — really gave it your all — and received little or no recognition for it? That feeling you’re recalling is why timeliness is so crucial to recognize, and why an Employee of the Year scheme may reward but will never truly inspire greatness.

The absence of recognition in the interim doesn’t just weaken the effect of recognition given later; it can have a strong and lasting negative impact. Each day, week, or month that goes by without that contribution being recognized is not only a missed opportunity to inspire similar contributions. It’s also a day, week, or month that employee lives with the sense that their work isn’t valued.

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That kind of experience can leave employees feeling unseen and underappreciated, which is a great reason for them not to put forth a big effort in the future. It’s also a pretty understandable reason to start looking for a new place to work.

If you see someone put forth a significant effort or make a meaningful contribution, don’t wait until the next employee review or employee appreciation day to recognize it. Don’t worry if they’re not your direct report, or if their name sits above yours in the org chart. Even if you’re not in a leadership position, your praise can have a meaningful impact on your colleagues’ experience at work.

Specificity: Give Recognition That Matters

Giving someone a pat on the back and telling them they’ve done a good job is better than nothing, but it won’t help them understand which of their contributions have the greatest impact on the organization, or why those contributions are important.

Specificity helps to zero in on exactly what made a contribution valuable, and it’s a great reference point for future contributions.

For example: Erica discovers a bug on her company’s app, and immediately implements a fix. Rather than “good job,” Erica’s team lead, Fatima, tells her “Nice work on the bug fix, Erica. Your dedication to quality is really admirable. Thousands of people depend on our product, and they’re able to because of the effort you’re investing here.”

That interaction between colleagues immediately became more meaningful and valuable, but that’s just the beginning. There’s an extraordinary thing that can happen when someone grasps the full extent of the meaning their contributions have to the world around them: instead of being held to accountability, which is arguably the most common relationship people have with accountability, they’re able to embrace it.

“These people are depending on me to get this job done,” becomes “These people can depend on me to get this job done.” That may seem like a subtle distinction, but the perspective shift it represents can produce truly extraordinary results.

Woman working at her desk

Visibility: Set the Right Example

Visibility amplifies the impact of praise and recognition, and not just for the receiver.

Many employees spend a great deal of time pondering what success looks like in their organization. They want to make valuable contributions, but sometimes it’s not clear what those contributions look like.

When employee recognition is visible, it’s no longer a mystery which initiatives and contributions are appreciated most. As employees see someone being recognized for a contribution, they gain a salient example of the types of contributions their peers and colleagues truly value. The more frequently and visibly contributions are recognized, the clearer and more detailed a picture of organizational values everyone gains.

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Keeping recognition front-of-mind on your team also helps boost participation and engagement. The more people see recognition out in the open, the more it cements the idea that your organization values employee contributions, and that recognizing great work is a normal part of daily activities.

There are many ways to make employee recognition more visible, from posting it across company-wide communications to featuring it on a big screen. However you choose to boost its visibility, remember that recognition’s influence doesn’t have to end with the giver and the recipient. It can positively impact the entire team.

In conclusion

Fostering a recognition-rich organizational culture is as impactful as it is rewarding. Although any recognition is worlds better than none at all, you can easily amplify its meaningfulness and influence by ensuring it’s inclusive, rewarding, timely, specific, and visible.

About the Author

George Dickson

George Dickson manages content and community at Bonusly. He’s dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.