Getting leaders engaged in recognition

Show them it’s more than an expense, it’s an investment in the workforce


Managing a company’s various employee recognition programs can be tough. Far more challenging is keeping senior leaders engaged with the initiative.

It can be an uphill battle gaining leader endorsement. Program budget approvals can be a lengthy back-and-forth process if monies are tight. Often, budget submissions are cut along the way.

The next battle is trying to get leaders to participate by using the programs. This can seem foreign to them — giving recognition may not come naturally.

Here are some ways to tackle leadership engagement issues:

Prepare properly

Having plans approved for a recognition program should happen long before they are needed. Reverse-engineer all that a leader requires of you to obtain their support for an initiative. Continually communicate and educate them about the program, and don’t leave updates until the quarter before approvals are needed — start ahead of time.

It’s about using the “CNN effect” for all communication:

Scroll bar advisories: Provide your vision or news in short and sweet sound-bites. Keep messages to about 25 words. Try to make a request or ask a question each time, and then follow up.

Breaking news: Keep leaders informed immediately of updates and changes. Always accompany a situation message with a solution, and provide them with steps to address any damage control. 

Developing story: Tell them what happened and what’s on the horizon. Keep them informed and educated on the latest recognition research. Show them the connection of employee recognition driving business results and improving people metrics.

Special report: Give leaders a review of the recognition program successes and challenges. Go deep on the business impact recognition has had in achieving strategic goals. Have the finance group monetize as many of the impact measures as possible.

Take the focus off money

There’s a critical need to move away from gaining leadership buy-in for employee recognition programs.

Whenever people get into a “buy-in” discussion, they are talking solely from a monetary or expense perspective.

Instead, gain each leader’s personal commitment — it’s then that money conversations turn from expense to investment.

Strategic budgeting: The focus should be on strategizing budgets. Demonstrate how recognition can help leaders achieve the company’s strategic initiatives. Consider where you will gain the greatest business impact and positive response from people.

Constant measurement: Help leaders by measuring recognition program effectiveness. Look at program usage and employees’ perception of recognition effectiveness. Move beyond program reports to analyze and correlate data with objectives and key results.

Sustainable budget: Create a sustainable recognition budget that is continuous year over year. This means you can more likely add to it instead of becoming a recurring target for being cut whenever financial problems arise.

Solid accountability: Hold departmental leaders accountable for recognition and rewards budgets. Have external providers regularly review program usage and budget spend. Request that they flag you on where to reduce costs when programs are not having an impact.

Demonstrate ROI: Provide leaders with the business impact and, where feasible, a return on investment for all recognition programs. Sometimes the benefit is relational and keeping good people happy, while other metrics can be monetized.

Overall, it’s about taking the focus off money when possible. Instead, use program analytics to prove the cost/benefit and ROI that leaders will see, so they will then be more invested in recognition.

Gain full participation

Leaders are busy people striving to maintain and improve the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits. Their lives are strategically focused and visionary.

It is difficult for them to be tactical on a day-to-day basis. However, their engagement and example are essential, especially with employee recognition.

Encourage leaders to set a positive recognition direction. They must demonstrate consistent and effective recognition giving, as well as sponsoring recognition practices and programs.

Invite leaders to personally commit to consistent and regular usage of all the recognition programs. Have them schedule a daily recognition activity on their calendar, such as writing a few thank-you notes or sending messages of acknowledgement to workers with outstanding employee performance.

In essence, it’s about working hard to gain leaders’ personal commitment versus buy-in. It’s about presenting information so recognition can be viewed as an investment versus an expense.

And it’s about having leaders personally experience the impact of meaningful, memorable and motivational recognition on employees.

Roy Saunderson is chief learning officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions in Montreal, which delivers recognition and reward solutions that inspire employees to succeed. For more information, visit


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