Giving Thanks: The Power of Employee Recognition

Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. —Voltaire

Have you ever gotten a really good thank you note?  The kind that is so good, you feel you need to send a thank you note for the thank you note?  How likely you are to help that person again?  I am HUGE on thank yous, particularly after I’ve worked hard for someone.  Employee recognition is one of the 10 attributes   I expect a lot of those that report to me and have always put a substantial amount of effort in understanding what makes them feel valued and recognizing them in the way they feel appreciated.  Sometimes it’s through professional development, sometimes through public praise, and others monetary recognition.  So, when I learned about half of leaders participating in a recent survey answered they avoid giving positive feedback (ie saying thank you or good job), I considered why this might be.  I came down to two reasons:  1) leaders are failing to see the value and ROI of employee recognition, or 2) leaders aren’t recognizing employees in a way that resonates.  Fortunately there is a significant amount of research on both topics.  Here we speak to the importance of employee recognition and how to do it.

Benefits of employee recognition and appreciation

Acknowledgment

How do you work when you feel recognized and appreciated versus not?  Chances are, your answer reflects what research has found on this topic.  In a SHRM survey, 48% of participating employees reported that management’s recognition of employee job performance was very important to their job satisfaction.  It’s no surprise then that separate research shows employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year. Because recognition is one of Culture Engineered’s ten attributes of the employee experience, we too show a significant correlation in most industries and roles between recognition and a positive employee experience.  Part of the reason, I believe, is due to our need as humans to been seen.  We have a desire to belong and part of that belonging is validated when we are acknowledged.  A study out of MIT randomly assigned students into three groups – acknowledged, ignored, shredded.  All students were given the mundane task of reviewing sheets of paper with random sequences of letters, circling pairs of duplicate letters appearing on each page.  Upon completing each page, they would then turn it into a person facilitating the study who, as the name suggests, either acknowledged, ignored, or shredded the page.  Students were paid 50 cents for their first submitted page and asked if they would then complete another page for five cents less, each following page worth 5 cents less than the previously submitted page, until payment was reduced to zero (ie 45 cents, then 40 cents, then 35 cents….5 cents, zero).  Participants were able to quit at any point of their choosing, OR continue until payment for each page was reduced to $0.00.  Which group do you think completed more pages?  The acknowledged group!  Contradictory to predictions made by researchers who anticipated the ignored and shredded groups would outperform the acknowledged group on account of there being such a low risk of cheating in these groups in particular, the acknowledged group outperformed the ignored and shredded groups by nearly 1.5 times.  The only difference?  Acknowledgment by the facilitator as the subject handed in his/her work.  No “thank you”, “good job”, nor did the facilitator even review the page.  Brief eye contact in this case produced a significant result where people were willing to work for the most basic reward – human connection.

Social worth

How do you get an employee engaged in their role?  One of the most frustrating things I hear from leaders is around people “going through the motions” of a job.  A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by researchers Adam Grant and Francesca Gino suggests gratitude may be the key to keeping employees engaged in even the jobs most prone to burnout – fundraising.  In the study fundraisers were randomly assigned to one of two groups.  All conditions were the same except the director of annual giving visited the test “gratitude” group, to thank the fundraisers for their work whereas the control group was not met with or “thanked”.  Over the course of a week, the gratitude group, having been thanked by the director, made 50% more calls than the control group having worked without thanks.  Consider those employees you feel have checked out of their jobs and those who approach their day’s work with the desire to succeed.  It’s only fair to assume you express more gratitude with employee working hard to drive your business and company forward.  But which came first – their drive or your words of gratitude?  Could a simple thanks be all the other employee needs to turn it around?

Employee recognition that resonates

Whose thanks matters most?

Historically, the higher rank the person praising you, the higher the perceived value the praise.  As our workplaces and society shift from placing a high value on authority to placing a high value on authenticity however, organizational hierarchy’s importance is not as important as it once was when it comes to employee recognition.  Data shows 24% of employees feel recognition is most memorable when it comes from the CEO, while 28% of employees feels it’s most memorable coming from the employee’s direct manager.  9% indicated peer-recognition is most notable.   If you wish to recognize an employee’s performance, the person recognizing the employee should understand the value of the employee’s contributions, capable of convincingly explaining the importance of the employee’s work.  If it’s recognizing an employee’s tenure or dedication to values, the person recognizing the employee should be a person that works closely with the employee, familiar with his/her journey and character.  Employee recognition is not transactional.  Even a “thank you” will mean more from a person that is sincere.  Have you ever received a certificate with your name misspelled?  Have you had an executive leader congratulate you on a sale you didn’t make?  Being recognized for the wrong thing can sometimes feel worse than not being recognized at all.  So, to avoid this from happening, make sure appreciation and recognition is coming from someone “in the know”.  All leaders should be looking to catch employees doing something right as often as possible.

How often?

How often leaders recognize employees will often depend on how the leader defines recognition.  Do you consider saying “thank you”, recognition?  What about one-on-ones with employees?  Or performance reviews?  According to Gallup’s Chief Scientist, we should praise employees frequently – weekly or even daily.  Similar to my feelings on the superficiality of romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day, recognition seems to resonate less with employees in the traditional and formal annual review where feedback is obligatory.  Instead, making appreciation and praise a part of your commitment to ongoing feedback and harnessing relationships proves to be a more sustainable and effective approach to employee recognition.  If you are not in the habit of regularly recognizing employee performance, create the habit by scheduling time each week to recognize your employees.  If you oversee leaders, make it a part of their weekly reporting that they meet with employees to recognize their work.  You do not need to schedule it in the employee’s work calendar (ie, “Kelly’s employee recognition time”).  Instead schedule the time for yourself, as a leader, to reflect on the good work each of your employees have done in the past week.  Then communicate your appreciate for that good work to that employee.  You will be amazed in just a few weeks how you will grow to be a more grateful leader and your employees will transform into more appreciative contributors.

What to say

Think back to that great “thank you” note you received.  What made it great?  Have you ever received a thank you note that said, thanks for your generous gift.  I have, and I immediately wished I had been less generous!  The best thank yous are specific and timely.  The thank you note you thought of likely thanked you specifically for the gift you gave the person and shared what that gift meant to them.  If you gifted them money – they may have even told you what they used it for.  If you gave them tickets to an event, they may have even included a picture of them at the event having the greatest time ever!  When you choose to say thank you or recognize someone for their great work, generosity, amazing character, it’s important to articulate two things:  the behavior or action you appreciate (specific), and what that behavior or action means to you (value) as an individual or to the department, organization, etc.  Remember the acknowledgment example we talked about earlier?  It’s not enough to say, you do great work or I appreciate your stellar attendance.  Here are some recognition and appreciation examples using the specific and value criteria:

Congratulations on exceeding your goal this month!  Because you hit your goal, we were able to meet our team goal – despite some other team members falling short of their targets.  Thank you for your willingness to give it your all, day in and day out.  You are an inspiration to me as well as the team and we are grateful for the energy and positivity you bring each day. 

Thank you for being such a reliable part of our team.  I know life is demanding of your time and energy; however, your stellar attendance and amazing consistent focus while at work have such a great impact on me and all those around you.  When you commit to something, I never doubt for a minute that you will achieve it.  Thank you for being such a great example of determination and integrity to me an all those around you.

How would you work differently if you were given this feedback?  We all want to be seen and acknowledged.  We all want to be of value.  It’s when we aren’t acknowledged and valued that we stop trying and sometimes apply our energy toward destructive behaviors.  Research shows us the historical practices of micromanaging and manipulating employees does not work.  Employees will not change until we as leaders change.  Will you rise to the challenge?

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