It was psychologist Abraham Maslow who did most to identify the importance of recognition and approval as a fundamental human need for people of all ages, by placing esteem high on his hierarchy of needs. We seek it from our parents and teachers from a very young age, and once we are in the workplace, we need it from our managers and peers as a signal of how we are performing and fitting in.
As modern organizations move away from using more traditional tools such as leaderboards, performance tables, and “employee of the month” awards to try to motivate their people to achieve, staff recognition has become an increasingly important way to highlight good work. It confirms that individual contributions are valued and also highlights the behaviors that leaders want to encourage. It means the process of recognizing contributions is no longer a strategy purely for rewarding top performers or those identified as “high potential,” but instead that recognition is for anyone at any level in the organization who has made a business contribution, no matter how large or small.
In the U.K., it seems organizations have been slow to embrace employee recognition programs. A 2019 Workhuman® survey of full-time employees found:
- Only 49% of U.K. workers are at companies where everyone is empowered to recognize good work.
- One in five admitted they have never received recognition for their work.
- One-third of respondents said they wished their manager showed more appreciation for their efforts.
Indeed, I have often been surprised when speaking to businesses at the complete lack of awareness of Employee Appreciation Day (celebrated the first Friday in March each year). This is despite there being many moments when employees would welcome recognition, either individually, say on a job anniversary, or as a team on completion of a particularly difficult and rewarding project.
The ROI of recognition
The fact is, employees want to be respected and valued for their contributions and to feel a sense of achievement for good work. Employee recognition can therefore be a key strategy for promoting engagement and improving productivity and retention by helping create a culture where thanks and appreciation are encouraged and employees are recognized for all the efforts that create positive outcomes.
The Employee Experience Index from Workhuman and IBM, based on data gathered from more than 23,000 employees in 45 countries, shows when employees receive recognition for doing good work, 83% report a more positive employee experience. Making recognition fun, rather than competitive, also introduces an element of team building, improving collaboration and helping to play a broader, more motivational role in the way the whole business achieves its goals.
Why recognition matters now
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for stronger recognition. Research from Gartner indicates that during periods of disruption, employees’ desire for being recognized increases by about 30%. More people now work remotely. And while for many this means working from home, others with less space are also now “living at work.” This can lead to feelings of isolation, particularly as employees may also be unsure of the longer-term security of their jobs or viability of their companies. Managers who have been used to identifying contributions in a physical office space now need to recognize employee contributions remotely, which is further complicated by limited opportunities for spontaneous interactions.
Our people need kindness, empathy, and recognition, and they also need to know their efforts are appreciated. Now is clearly the time for organizations to take creative approaches to recognition, allowing employees to show their gratitude in the moment, up and down the organization. It is important that this is fun, convenient, and accessible.
Adding a reward element to recognition can make it that much more meaningful. For example, allowing employees to accumulate points that can be redeemed for gift cards or merchandise encourages everyone to look for opportunities to say “thank you” for the actions that build toward team and business output, particularly the smaller ones.
Adding a human element to recognition
Recognition need not purely be for task-related achievements and contributions. Messaging colleagues on birthdays and work anniversaries, and recognizing life events such as marriages or the birth of children or grandchildren, helps foster greater engagement and is important for team morale. It helps unite the workforce and create greater purpose.
And while retention and engagement rates are higher for employees who receive recognition, Workhuman data shows they are higher still for employees who both give and receive recognition. Enabling a culture of two-way appreciation is now vital. Also, a “thank you” can break through social and emotional barriers, particularly in a hierarchical structure. It can help create trust and forge social bonds between peers and also between managers and their teams, facilitating more knowledge sharing and collaboration.
Regular recognition is a powerful tool that can help create a sense of belonging within your organization and with colleagues, particularly in times of uncertainty. A culture where thanks and appreciation are encouraged, and in which people feel they can be recognized for all the smaller efforts that contribute to business outcomes, makes them feel they can reach their full potential. This ultimately creates a workplace people want to be in – one that is likely to retain employees and thrive in the face of challenges.
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