Turbo-charging recognition from managers

HR plays critical role in framing best practices
By David Cooperand Basma Iqbal
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2011

Organizations are constantly seeking ways to raise levels of employee engagement and increase performance. Managers, much like sports car drivers, play a key role in igniting the spark that can turbo-charge engagement — in some cases, increasing it by as much as 60 per cent — according to the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study.

The good news is organizations that establish global consistency for talent management and rewards are 74 per cent more likely to have recognition programs, according to the 2010 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study by Towers Watson.

The not-so-good news?The failure of these programs to achieve real results stems not from a lack of original or high-cost rewards options but from poor manager execution.

Most organizations know greater engagement garners greater discretionary effort. And while managers are often in the driver’s seat when it comes to delivering recognition programs, they must also picture themselves in the passenger seat to understand why recognition programs work.

In addition to delivering tangible rewards, intangible recognition delivered unexpectedly by sincere and empathetic managers can have the most positive results on levels of engagement, according to the 1999 University of California study A Neuropsychological Theory of Positive Affect and its Influence on Cognition.

Why? While recognition does not always have to be formal or expensive, it should always be highly valued.

A formal thank-you note may fulfill the promise of a recognition program but a sincere and heartfelt verbal appreciation engages an employee by demonstrating personal gratitude and an understanding of the effort expended.

The value of recognition lies not in the cost of the recognition but in the behaviour of the manager. The employee feels good that both her efforts and the results of those efforts were noticed but, most importantly, she feels valued.

Manager’s role

To be successful at delivering a sense of value, organizations and front-line managers must adhere to a few basic tenets: inclusiveness, communication and trust.

Inclusiveness: Can you imagine a sports announcer who asks the crowd to hold their applause until the end of the game? Of course not. Fans want to cheer at every opportunity and the team needs to hear their appreciation. The same notion pertains at work. Frequent recognition is like applause — it rewards the accomplishment in real time.

To be inclusive in their recognition of employees, managers must ensure there are many times when applause can be given. They must also ensure all employees have the opportunity to excel and be appreciated, and the criteria and rules (formal or informal) are clear and fairly applied to all.

Communication: Just as every car must have tires, every management model must provide for effective communication. In the context of recognition, this means being unambiguous about the connection between performance and rewards — formal or informal.

Like tires on a car, communication skills are basic and necessary but when it comes to communicating value through recognition, managers must be highly skilled at delivering key messages at the right times. They must not only understand when to deliver the recognition, they must know what form it should take and how best to deliver it to elicit a sense of value by the employee.

Trust: Trust is the emotional foundation of the relationship between a manager and an employee and plays a key role in engendering employee value. From the employee perspective, trusting a manager means having confidence she will keep an employee’s well-being at heart and recognize performance when (and only when) recognition is earned.

HR’s role

HR is like the service bay during the race. It plays a critical role in framing best practices and how the programs work. It also plays a critical role in nurturing management commitment and developing the skills necessary to deliver effective recognition.

If human resources is to enable business results, organizations must move beyond simply communicating what the recognition programs are and when to deliver them. HR must be tasked with equipping managers with an understanding of why recognition programs work.

HR can also play a key role in measuring the levels of satisfaction employees have with recognition experiences. In turn, they can partner with other departments in establishing a business case for investing in new or improved programs and work with front-line managers to build a culture of recognition.

HR can also work to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of programs by measuring the correlation to key levers of engagement — improvements in employee focus on core values, “going the extra mile” and the perception managers are helping them learn and perform effectively.

Last, but by no means least, HR can identify the managers whose behaviours are helping to turbo-charge engagement, recognize their contribution and, in turn, help reinforce a culture of recognition.

Driving in circles wins the race

Recognition, engagement and performance form a self-reinforcing system. Recognition sparks feelings of engagement as well as the belief performance will yield reward. High performance, in turn, produces the next round of reward and recognition, which gives rise to engagement — and so the circle continues.

The most powerful car doesn’t always cross the finish line first, of course. Driver skill is important, as are road conditions and a certain amount of luck. Likewise, employee engagement isn’t enough, by itself, to create and maintain a marketplace lead.

But, all other things being equal, an organization with turbo-charged employee engagement puts itself in a strong position to win the race.

David Cooper is a consultant in the reward, talent and communications practice at Towers Watson. BasmaIqbal is a senior analyst in the reward, talent and communications practice at Towers Watson. For more information, visit www.towerswatson.ca.

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