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Recognition – how to turbo-charge success

Black noticeboard with white writing saying 'Thank You'
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“Change is the only constant” (attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus). How often have you heard this phrase or some variation? People use it to explain (or excuse) shifts in policy, values and decisions. But it’s not terribly inspiring! Why bother learning a new way of doing things if it’ll just change again? And worse, why learn if we won’t even get any recognition for trying?

While success in anything comes from a combination of factors, recognition is a golden opportunity to turbo-charge success. The sad thing is that many organisations overlook it entirely. But it doesn’t have to be a big, difficult, expensive thing to embed in your culture. There are simple, effective and low-cost approaches that will make your employees feel valued and engaged.

Effective recognition systems can be simple and low-cost

Recognition systems don’t have to be expensive and complex. At its heart, recognition is a way to thank people for doing the right thing. Research shows that a good system will encourage desirable behaviours, boost morale, engagement and performance, and reduce turnover. The cost of replacing just one position a year usually exceeds the annual cost of most recognition systems.

To create a recognition system, you’ll need to:

  • Define your organisation’s values and the behaviours that support them.
  • Lower the barriers to recognising people who get it right.
  • Recognise people in a timely manner.

An example of a great recognition system

One of the best recognition systems I have encountered was where the leaders of an organisation identified its core values then defined the associated behaviours. They created a “recognition card” system, with cards printed for each value. Employees, contractors, and site visitors can both give and receive cards.

An image of the University of Calgary's cards, with titles like "Congrats", "Thank you", "Nice Work" and "Glad You're on the Team"
The University of Calgary runs a programme based on similar principles

Recognition as reinforcement

The simple act of giving a recognition card positively reinforces the behaviour and values for both parties.

The company takes it one step further – recipients can display their card on a board in a hallway (almost everyone does). This enhances the power of the recognition as everyone can read the cards.

Instant, easy recognition

Looking up to the blue sky from underneath lush green trees
“Great oaks from tiny acorns grow” – 14th Century Proverb
Image credit: Pexels

The simplicity of the system means that if you see something good happen, you can recognise it immediately. You don’t need to fill out an application or seek approval.

It’s the little things

The system encourages recognition of even small actions. The only requirement is that the nominator believes the action is worth recognising.

Creating a positive spiral

Catching people getting it right creates a positive spiral. By reading about good things our teammates are doing, we feel more positive towards them. And we become more likely to take similar action, especially in new or unusual situations (known as social proof) and to notice similar behaviours in others.

From recognition to reward

Recognition – the power is on the inside

“Recognition” is noticing, then telling the other person that you noticed. It produces intrinsic motivation: the recipient feels proud, accomplished and valued. How great does it feel to be thanked for something you’ve done? You probably want to do it again- that’s intrinsic motivation at work.

A black noticeboard with the words "Thank You" written in white
Your Mum was right – these really are magic words!
Image credit: Pexels

Rewards – external and tangible

A “reward” is an external benefit; it can be seen, touched, or counted. It can be anything from the boss giving you the afternoon off to movie tickets, a bottle of wine, or a bonus payment.

You don’t have to link rewards to your recognition system, but it can enhance the outcomes.

Make the link

Greyscale photo of a heavy chain dangling vertically. Image credit: Pexels

If you implement a reward system, it’s vital to clearly link rewards to the desired behaviours and actions. Telling someone to take the afternoon off produces a temporary blip of happiness. But it doesn’t highlight the behaviours and actions that led to that reward. It can even cause resentment amongst other staff.

A better alternative? Give the same reward accompanied by a certificate or email describing the specific behaviours that are being rewarded. And make sure the wider team hears that message. This creates a clear line-of-sight between the behaviour and the outcome

Some important caveats

Focus on what people can control

Recognition and reward systems work best when they focus on what people can control. Setting a target over which they have little influence is demotivating and can lead to learned helplessness (Wikipedia explains this well). Using desired behaviours and actions as the basis for recognition and reward puts everyone on a level playing field. Our choices are within our control.

Design wisely for long-term organisational success

We need to be wise in designing these schemes – we don’t want to create systems that can be manipulated or cheated, or that encourage behaviour that secures a reward in the short-term, but damages the organisation in the long-term.

Keep it fresh

It’s also important to ensure that rewards don’t become seen as an expected outcome; that is, they lose their power when recipients start to see them as guaranteed. So you need to regularly refresh the understanding that people must do certain things, or achieve certain targets, in order to qualify for the reward. Reviewing and adjusting the reward and recognition system regularly, and communicating the changes, can help with this.

Be aware of how long the benefits will last

Financial rewards only have a short-term post-award effect on performance; most people have “forgotten” the reward within a few months. Experiential rewards (e.g. an activity that generates memories) have a longer-lasting effect. Making everything “all about the money” also risks moving the employment relationship to being more instrumental (I do this only because they pay me), whereas experiential rewards, coupled with genuine recognition practices move the relationship towards being affective (I do this because the company and I care about each other).

Apply the Goldilocks principle

The value of the financial reward matters – too little, and people can feel offended at being low-balled (even though the reward would mean earning more money than if the reward didn’t exist). Too high, and you can generate a performance “choke”, as people become so focused on the “pot of gold” that they begin to make uncharacteristic mistakes. This is especially true for tasks that require concentration and creativity. Game shows rely on this feature of human nature, as it means it’s very unlikely for participants to walk away with the big prize, thus keeping the prize budget down!


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