More than Warm Fuzzies: The Value of Recognition at Work

By Carole Wehn

Have you thanked a team member today? It’s the best way to boost employee engagement, productivity, and profit – plus, it’s free and takes very little time.

Why Do We Need a Culture of Recognition?

It may seem intuitive that employees who are thanked and recognized for their work are happier and, as a result, perform better.  But unfortunately, managers may be busy with other tasks or have an “if you don’t hear anything, assume you’re doing a good job” attitude. Consequently, many employees say they aren’t receiving the appreciation they crave. 

Research studies support the importance of employee recognition:

  • Gallup found that personalized attention from the manager creates an emotional bond with the worker. This acknowledgment helps drive higher productivity, lower turnover, fewer mistakes and on-the-job accidents, and, ultimately, higher profits.
  • Regarding turnover, one of Gallup’s findings is that employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.
  • A Globoforce survey found 86 percent of employees felt they could trust managers who had shown them recognition in the last month.
  • A Harvard Business Review article notes that workers in high-trust companies experience less stress, more engagement, and less burnout.

This research isn’t just asking employees whether they are happy at work.  The science bears this out.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that stimulates the parts of the brain that process rewards and creates positive emotions like satisfaction and enjoyment. Receiving recognition for your work releases dopamine, which is why you feel good after that pat on the back.  It also makes you keep performing at a high level, with the hope that more praise and more dopamine are coming. 

But when that expected recognition doesn’t come, dopamine levels drop, and employees may not work as hard.

The dopamine rush also factors into a willingness to pay it forward.  A Gallup survey found that two-thirds of employees agreed with the statement, “If I get recognition, I would also like to give others recognition.” Peer-to-peer appreciation creates a culture where teammates know they can count on and trust one another.

Who Should Receive Recognition?

In short, everyone!  Praise for a job well done should flow across all levels of the organization – peer to peer, manager to their direct report, and direct report to their manager.

Remember your remote workers.  They may already be feeling disconnected from the workplace, so remind them that you notice and appreciate their contributions.

Recognition has a powerful impact on teams as well.  Praising the entire team encourages collaboration. It discourages personal competition and self-protective behavior like information hoarding. Gallup’s research found the majority of teams who regularly receive praise:

  • Feel their work is valuable and useful, which drives engagement
  • Consider quality a top priority
  • Trust the people with whom they work

Who Should Give Recognition?

Gallup’s research indicates that the most meaningful recognition comes from the direct supervisor or higher-level managers.  Of the workers surveyed, 28 percent said the most memorable appreciation comes from their manager; 24 percent said it’s most impressive when coming from the CEO or other high-level leader.

However, acknowledgment by one’s peers can be equally important.  Accountability and trust among team members contribute to productivity, so support peer-to-peer recognition programs and informal encouragement.

What Should Recognition Look Like?

Employee recognition must be honest, authentic, and individualized.  Your employees are savvy and can see through an “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. People don’t want acknowledgment just for “showing up.” Unearned praise does more harm than no praise at all.

Employees crave feedback that is:

  • Positive
  • Immediately connected to their performance
  • Specific

Saying “great job!” is valuable. But it is much more meaningful if you detail the specifics of the person’s actions and how they helped you or advanced the company’s objectives.  In some cases, the employee may not even realize the impact of their action, and it helps reinforce the linkage between their work and the broader company goals.

The acknowledgment doesn’t have to be about landing a major new client or launching a new product.  Recognize the little wins as well as the big ones and remember the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the company running smoothly.

Recognition can be a private conversation or a public acknowledgment such as an award certificate or commendation. It can also be high marks on a performance evaluation; however, don’t wait until the end of the year to relay the feedback. Promotions and increased responsibilities that show trust are also ways of providing recognition. 

Monetary awards such as trips, prizes, and pay increases are not as meaningful as you might think.  Most employees are just as happy with the acknowledgment that their work is good and meaningful.

When Should I Give Recognition?

Good work ought to be recognized as soon as it’s observed. Yet, surprisingly, this doesn’t happen as often as it should. For example, in Gallup’s Q12 survey of employee engagement, less than one-third of American workers agree with the statement: “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.”

While a week seems very short, Gallup feels this benchmark reflects the need for meaningful feedback to be timely.  Further, the rush of dopamine one experiences when receiving praise doesn’t last long!

Waiting until it’s convenient to give acknowledgment can diminish its impact. Don’t wait until you happen to run into the staff member or when you have some free time. The team member may not even remember the incident you want to praise!

In addressing the need for weekly recognition, Gallup researchers Nate Dvorak and Ryan Pendell have some concrete suggestions:

  • Start every team meeting (even if it’s a call) with an acknowledgment of someone who did a great job in the last week. Eventually, this will become ingrained into “how we do things here,” and your team members will also step up to acknowledge one another.
  • Every Friday, think of three people who helped you during that week. Find the best forum for letting those employees know how much you value them.

At a minimum, don’t wait until an annual performance review to recognize your employees’ many contributions.  While formal performance reviews may be an important part of your culture, employees should not have to wait and possibly feel unappreciated until the review cycle comes around.

Make praise part of your daily habits and work culture.

How and Where Should I Give Recognition?

Whenever possible, tailor employee recognition to the recipient.  For example, some people love to be the center of attention, so a formal public recognition event is perfect for them.  Others avoid the spotlight and may prefer a simple one-on-one acknowledgment.  Know your employees and what is most comfortable and appropriate for each person. When in doubt, ask!

Team acknowledgment, on the other hand, is best handled through larger-scale recognition. For instance, you may choose a forum such as a company-wide event or a departmental meeting.  This is a great way to show the link between the team’s accomplishments and company objectives and demonstrate the importance of working well together.

Be creative in how you choose to show recognition.  A simple “thank you” and acknowledging what the employee did and how it made a difference can suffice.  Some companies use gift cards, additional time off, or silly awards like rubber chickens.

Try to convey your appreciation in person.  This approach may be impossible with remote and global workforces, and the phone or email may have to do.  However, the personal touch has a lot more impact, especially when it comes from an executive to whom the employee has very little exposure.

Consider the power of a handwritten noteDavid Novak, former CEO and Chairman of Yum! Brands, says that about three-quarters of people save them. Think of the message sent when the CEO writes a personal note acknowledging an employee’s performance – priceless! Sending it by snail mail makes it even more attention-grabbing.

How Can I Create a Culture of Recognition?

Your company culture may rely upon annual performance reviews and sales awards meetings to show employees how much you value them.  While those activities might be a significant part of your history, don’t ignore the benefits of adding informal, timely acknowledgments. 

We provide suggestions above on revising your personal approach to acknowledging good work.  But how do you change your company’s culture to one that regularly shows employees how much you value them?

Culture change starts with identifying the specific behaviors that drive success in your company.  These behaviors are best identified by top leaders and communicated throughout the organization.  Then, the challenge is incorporating them into the way your people interact with one another, customers, and vendors.

At CultureWise, we help small to medium-sized businesses implement and reinforce the desired behaviors. One of the standard behaviors we recommend to clients is “Show Meaningful Appreciation.” We describe this as:    

“Recognize people doing things right, rather than pointing out when they do things wrong. Regularly extend meaningful acknowledgment and appreciation – in all directions throughout our organization.”

CultureWise provides business leaders with resources to build a culture of meaningful appreciation that will help your employees thrive. 

Learn more about company culture and how to intentionally change yours by: