How to avoid people having negative reactions to recognition programs

Many programs have components that lead to perceptions of inauthenticity

How to avoid people having negative reactions to recognition programs
Although recognition programs are well-intentioned, they often have an unintended, negative impact. Credit: kentoh (Shutterstock)


In the past two decades, business and organizational leaders have been told they need to have an employee recognition program to keep employees happy and motivated. As a result, recognition programs have proliferated.

But the impact of employee recognition is mixed. On the one hand, well-designed and effectively implemented employee recognition programs have been shown to increase performance. On the other, they have had little impact on employee engagement — only 33 per cent of employees worldwide are actively involved in, and emotionally committed to, their place of employment, according to a 2017 survey of employers in 155 countries by Gallup.

What’s more, 96 per cent of all recognition awards given by Canadian organizations are for length of service, according to a survey of 383 organizations by the Conference Board of Canada — which has very little impact on motivating staff.

Recognition versus appreciation

Although recognition programs are well-intentioned, they often have an unintended, negative impact. For example, many employees don’t want to go up in front of a large group to accept an award. 

Additionally, many traditional employee recognition programs have components that lead to a perception of inauthenticity. For example, when they are:

•commanded — when everyone has to participate (whether they like it or not), recognition is not viewed as genuine

•organizationally driven — the recognition comes from either the HR department or a higher level organizational leader who has no relationship with the recipient

•group-based — a lot of recognition is communicated to groups: “Way to go, team, we met our goals for the quarter!” but the message says nothing about the team member who stayed late to enter the data to make sure the report was submitted in time

•generic — when everyone gets the same certificate and gift card, the recipient feels treated like everyone else

•emphasis on verbal praise — many supervisors have been trained to give verbal compliments as a way of encouraging others. But more than 50 per cent of people in 2017 prefer to be shown appreciation in other ways, according to my research involving 100,000 people taking an online assessment around appreciation. Their mantra is “Don’t tell me, show me”

•reliance on rewards — virtually every employee recognition program emphasizes rewards as a key component. Unfortunately, less than 10 per cent of employees desire tangible rewards as the primary way to be recognized, according to the same research. While most people don’t mind receiving some type of gift, the generic nature of the typical award — a recognition plaque or certificate — is viewed as superficial and disingenuous. 

So what’s the result of these characteristics? Apathy, sarcasm and cynicism.

The importance of appreciation

Conversely, employees want to truly feel appreciated by their supervisors and colleagues. Each person wants to know that what they are doing matters, and that they are valued as people. The top reason employees enjoy their work is “feeling appreciated” (with financial compensation not appearing until number eight), according to a 2014 study of more than 200,000 global employees by the Boston Consulting Group.

A key principle to understand is that not everyone feels valued or encouraged in the same way. While giving verbal praise may be meaningful to some, others might think: “Words are cheap.”

Spending time is another way to demonstrate support. One staff member reported, “I just want my supervisor to stop by my office every once in a while and see how I’m doing.” Bringing a colleague a cup of coffee when you know she’s had a long day is yet another way to show you appreciate her efforts. Even a high-five can be a form of acknowledgement when a problem has been resolved.

There are four key components of appreciation necessary for team members to truly feel valued:

•Communicate regularly: Communicating praise once or twice per year at an employee’s performance review, or monthly awards, doesn’t get it done. People need frequent feedback to know they are valued.

•Be individualized and personal: A blast email to a team saying, “Good job, team, way to get the project done” is not as effective as managers think. Focusing on the individual and his specific contribution is far more meaningful.

•Be meaningful in language and actions: Most people attempt to communicate appreciation in ways that are meaningful to them, but leaders need to learn to communicate appreciation using actions that are important to the recipient. 

•Be perceived as authentic: The biggest complaint about employee recognition programs is they feel contrived and disingenuous. The goal is not to “go through the motions” but to authentically communicate appreciation for the value each team member contributes to the organization.

Expressing appreciation

It’s important to make appreciation personal. While group-based recognition is a good start, a team member wants to know (and hear about) what she has done that is valued. State specifically what she did — and tell her why her actions were important to you, the organization or customers. 

Being genuine is also key. If the communication of appreciation is not perceived as being genuine, nothing else really matters. Clearly, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it.

The results

The goal of communicating authentic appreciation is not just to make people feel good. There are significant financial benefits to an organization, such as improved attendance, reduced workplace conflict, reduced turnover, increased productivity, increased customer satisfaction, and increased engagement.

When employees feel truly valued, overall staff morale improves and a workplace becomes more positive. In combination with an effective employee recognition program that focuses on productivity, appreciation by supervisors and colleagues for people’s contributions to the organization makes good things happen.

Paul White is a licenced psychologist and author of The Vibrant Workplace: Overcoming Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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