As a leader, you probably know that it is important to recognize your team members. However, research shows that there is a disconnect in many organizations. Mike Byram, author of The WOW! Workplace, stated in a webinar that 90% of companies have a strategy in place for employee recognition, yet more than 70% of employees are not satisfied with the recognition they receive at work. For many companies, leadership lets the compensation plans and financial incentives do the work of recognizing employees. While everyone likes to have more money, often these financial incentives don’t come with an emotional component and therefore are not memorable to employees. Financial incentives alone aren’t enough to engage your workforce. You also need frequent and meaningful recognition to significantly improve employee engagement.
One reason that recognition can be more powerful than compensation or incentives for motivating and engaging your team is that recognition taps into our internal and social motivations. Letting your team know they are valued leads to higher engagement, a greater impact on the organization, and to the team members feeling more energized and happier about what they do on a daily basis. Recognition can ignite employees’ passion and motivate them. Building a culture of recognition makes financial sense for the company as well; Byram said that it takes 8% of a person’s salary to effectively motivate him or her with cash incentives. But, you can invest less cash and get the same performance improvement with a tangible award.
Byram gave the example of professional football players. While they make millions of dollars, most of them are far more motivated by something like winning a Super Bowl. While most of them could easily purchase as many rings as their hearts desire with the money they make, being recognized and differentiated as part of an elite group is far more motivating to most than the money. The money gets spent and forgotten about, but that Super Bowl ring will represent their achievement for the rest of their lives; everyday when they put it on, they can re-experience that proud moment. The same is true for your team; they will appreciate the financial incentive, but other forms of recognition can be more long-lasting, effective, and less expensive for your company.
So, how do you build recognition systems that connect with your employees and actually motivate them?
You need to create a balanced recognition system that is made up of three parts:
- Day-to-Day: This is a key tool for all managers. Most leaders know that recognizing employees is important, but we’re all busy and this can feel like just another thing to do. Leaders need to create mechanisms that prompt frequent recognition of employees’ contributions because the outcomes are worth the investment of time and energy. One way that you might put this in your flight path is to include a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for yourself on employee recognition. You might set a goal to write one handwritten note each week to recognize someone in a way that’s personal and meaningful. Something else Byram recommended was to think of some small token that you can give out to employees that you want to recognize that they can wear or display in their workspace. This is doubly effective because it gives the employee the opportunity to share the story of why they were recognized. This reinforces the behavior, attitude or contribution you recognized them for displaying, and it is an opportunity for ongoing recognition from others on the team.
- Informal: This type of recognition is peer to peer, not manager driven. Having a system of peer recognition is important because it increases the frequency of recognition, and looking for the company's desired behaviors, attitudes and contributions in others reinforces those in everyone. Byram gave an example of having a football that is presented to a team member for living the core values or a job well done; then, that team member must sign the football and be on the lookout for someone to recognize. Passing around something tangible from peer to peer is highly motivating.
- Formal: This doesn’t happen everyday; formal recognition is reserved for significant milestones or achievements like big anniversaries or attaining certain career goals. Byram cautions to ensure that any formal recognition is not based on competition so that only the top people can achieve it. Formal recognition should be something that is more collaborative than competitive - more of a "join the club" mentality than something you need to beat out others to win. Having some criteria that anyone could reach is more motivating to everyone, and it encourages all to raise the bar on performance; recognizing only the top people can actually decrease motivation for the majority of people who assume they’ll never get there and don’t need to try.
You do need to have an intentional strategy for calling attention to the behaviors and attitudes that you want to cultivate in your organization, and having all three of these elements in your strategy is key. You can use some of the ideas above or anything else that works for you. Different strategies will work best depending on what kind of culture you work in and what kind of manager you are. The key is to communicate in some way that people are valuable to you, and you can do that with anything from a handwritten note to a football as long as you are presenting it properly and creating an emotional experience that is memorable for the person. To give meaningful recognition, do it right then, be specific about what you are recognizing them for, and be positive.
Hopefully, adding a recognition strategy to your existing compensation and financial incentive programs will improve your employee engagement and help you build a culture where people feel valued and love to come to work!