Why Recognition Programs Don’t Work

AwardsIt’s widely accepted that an important part of any employee engagement strategy is having a recognition program.  People want to feel valued and acknowledged for their work, so organizations implement recognition programs to accomplish that by offering awards, plaques, mugs, pins, gifts, certificates, and/or bonuses.  All of those things are nice and the concept sounds good – except for one thing.  Recognition programs don’t work.  They don’t improve employee engagement.

Let me explain why they don’t work and offer an effective alternative.  Recognition programs are ineffective for two very important reasons.  The first reason is that they are structured, mandated programs.  By that, I mean that the rewards (the tangible items of recognition) are related to prescribed actions.  In other words, “if this, then that.”  It’s what corporations tend to do to ensure consistency across the organization.  It allows the program to be properly and objectively administered, and it provides a degree of accountability.  But there are two fundamental problems with this structured solution.

The first problem with a structured approach is that it produces the opposite result with respect to engagement and productivity.  Initially, there will be an uptick in engagement, but in short order the program becomes a detriment.  Daniel Pink details this dynamic well in his book, “Drive”.  Once a reward comes to be expected, it no longer acts to motivate and in fact, produces declining results.

The second problem with a structured approach is that it becomes impersonal and somewhat insincere.  Recognition ends up bestowed upon someone because the program dictates that recognition be made.  An impersonal acknowledgement has virtually no effect on engagement.

The second reason recognition programs are ineffective relates to the fundamental definition of recognition.  Recognition is something that is generally done to acknowledge a person’s achievements.  Of course, we accomplish things all the time, but the reality is that very little of what we accomplish is noteworthy.  Consequently, recognition is uncalled for or is offered insincerely.

If we really want to drive engagement and productivity, we need to acknowledge a person’s efforts, more so than their achievements.  Additionally, this acknowledgement needs to be sincere and personal.  The key to higher engagement and productivity is to show appreciation rather than offering recognition.

Appreciation is generally personal and heartfelt, given from one person to another.  And it’s often spontaneously shown as a response to the effort someone put into completing a task.  It is an expression of gratitude for someone’s effort, and its impact is immediate and long-lasting.

Telling someone you appreciate their effort in completing a project over the weekend has a far greater impact than offering a token of recognition.  Plus, the degree of appreciation expressed is generally in direct proportion to the effort and/or sacrifice made by the person.  Expressing appreciation makes a difference.

If you really want people to truly feel valued, then show sincere appreciation and skip the trinkets.

By the way…

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