Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive

How to acknowledge people without turning them off

In small- and medium-sized organizations, acknowledgement is extremely important and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. Everybody likes to be appreciated for their efforts, but only if they are rewarded and acknowledged in a way that is genuine. One way to get there is to solicit the opinion of employees and give them a say in how their efforts are saluted.

Most companies have a formal way of acknowledging employees with annual award banquets, top sales awards and certificates. But if the award program doesn’t invite a thunderous reception, it may be because it is too generic.

Common pitfalls in award programs

There are some major pitfalls to generic award programs:

•a reward handed down from management reinforces power imbalances;

•a small award for a large accomplishment can be patronizing to receive;

•an accomplishment is often a team effort, so it fosters resentment when just one person gets the reward;

•they cause competition;

•a reward usually occurs annually or semi-annually, thereby greatly postponing recognition for superior daily performance;

•salary raises are nice, but seldom motivate people to consistently achieve on the job;

•top performers are often the same people every month, which can cause resentment and neglect secondary achievements; and

•the most common flaw of award programs is they often reward people for doing work they were supposed to do anyway.

Why, then, are formal award systems so popular? The main advantage to formal awards is that they are easy to administer. All that needs to be done is calculate how close people get to their goal, find the “top achievers” and acknowledge them with the standard reward. This advantage is also the major disadvantage. Formal awards are a “mass acknowledgment” program. They can be very impersonal and don’t take into account the strengths, accomplishments or efforts of individuals. Formal award systems recognize one narrow aspect of the job (such as increased revenue, sales or productivity) and those few employees who are good at achieving that goal. By contrast, informal recognition programs focus on spontaneous and personal appreciation of employee efforts.

In smaller organizations it’s easier to specifically acknowledge employees in a genuine way because everyone works closely together and most work is clearly linked to the organization’s cause.

The art of appreciating others: Four qualities of a good acknowledgment

Managers need to notice and nurture consistent acts of achievement. Yet many managers don’t consider showing appreciation as part of their job description. Other managers realize that acknowledgment is important, but they botch the process.

There is an art to showing appreciation for others. Employees won’t be impressed by trite and generic compliments. According to B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist and author, a good acknowledgment has four qualities:

Specific: Talk very specifically about what the person did. General motivational clichés like “good team player” will have a lukewarm effect.

Immediate: Praising someone for something she did nearly a year ago is a waste of time because the best acknowledgment is immediate. Catch someone in the act of doing well and compliment the behaviour on the spot.

Personal: Use the person’s name and talk about the qualities she brings to the team.

Spontaneous: Never script compliments or they won’t sound sincere.

Another good practice is to always link individual performance to the overall good of the group. According to a study done by staffing firm Robert Half, a lack of praise and recognition is one of the main reasons why employees leave their jobs.

Acknowledgment doesn’t have to come from a manager. Train and encourage all employees to recognize each other. Train in the four steps above and have employees role-play to acknowledge one another. Create a culture of appreciation (see below) where employees regularly recognize each other’s contributions.

Reward people individually and in a personalized way for their accomplishments instead of generally addressing the whole group for its performance level. Take time to find out what specifically motivates each employee and then see what can be done to make that happen.

Unsure about what motivates others? Ask them. Increase the say factor in the job by getting people talking about what inspires and motivates them and engage them in the reward process. When rewarded in the way they want, people will be much more satisfied.

Four steps to creating a personalized rewards system

Create an acknowledgment committee. This is a fun volunteer position and it should rotate regularly so all staff have an opportunity to participate. The acknowledgment committee is responsible for acknowledging other staff members weekly.

Have the committee create a form that helps them get to know employees. Ask employees things like, “Share your favourite colour, your biggest pet peeve, something interesting about your family and your hobbies.” Anything unique about a person that they share is valuable.

Conduct draws. File these forms away and every week (or month or however often) the committee randomly draws an employee’s name and checks the list to find interesting and unique ways to acknowledge him. (For example, Jason loves telling jokes so buy him a joke book). The reward is fun and does not cost a lot, usually under $10.

Catch them in the act. The committee now has to catch Jason in the act of doing well and acknowledge him with the personalized item.

Jody Urquhart is a Calgary-based recognition consultant and author of All Work & No SAY…ho hum another day: How to Captivate Your Workforce, Boost Morale and Increase Productivity. For more information visit

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