Reward is something promised and therefore expected based on a particular outcome being reached. Recognition, on the other hand, is decided after the fact, without promise or expectation. Both play their part in employee motivation.
Top-down recognition always has the potential to be viewed cynically by employees and it’s much harder for managers to see the great work happening on the ground.
Modern organisations are encouraging peer recognition, often enabled by technology, which allows anyone to recognise anyone else and for this recognition to be voted for and amplified by others, allowing strong social safeguarding of culture.
Aligning recognition with organisational goals is a good idea, but you want to avoid recognising only top talent.
Public and private praise helps everyone play to their strengths, self-discover weaknesses and generally improve on their own spectrum at a suitable pace.
Recognition is certainly a way to encourage the right behaviours and make examples of those achieving strong results, but it’s also a whole-organisation cultural commitment to encourage everyone’s development. You must be inclusive by design.
Lots of organisations have long-service awards – work there for a decade and get a gold watch.
But you could have two people collecting this award on the same day, one who has coasted, disengaged, for the whole 10 years, and another who has worked hard and innovated since they joined. Both are rewarded in the same way.
Is that really fair? Recognising presence may be ‘fair’ in the organisation’s eyes, but it won’t be viewed that way by employees, and it can be very demotivating.
Recognition is the perfect time to develop the relationship between employer and employee by treating employees as individuals. Most organisations choose rewards that ‘everyone likes,’ such as champagne or chocolates, but these are quite impersonal.
Line managers should know individuals in their team enough to make recognition meaningful and aligned with that individual’s purpose. Do they love rock climbing? Get them a gift card to the local centre. Are they happiest in nature? Maybe a National Trust membership is appropriate.
Matching what’s being recognised with an appropriate prize is always more impactful than anonymous prizes.
If someone goes out of their way to help someone else, for example by mentoring, skills-sharing or another form of support, consider making a donation to a charity of their choice.
Helping others is a powerful motivator and a long-term source of sustainable energy. This also encourages a collaborative mindset.
If you only recognise success you do people a disservice by not seeing how far they are traveling on the journey to success, and encouraging them to get there quicker.
Specificity is important here, so recognising someone for being a fast learner in a valuable workplace skill and making it clear why that’s important will be much better than simply having a ‘most improved’ award.
As the boundaries between work and home blur, we often talk negatively of how work can impact home life, such as the delivery of emails during evening meals.
But we need to look at the relationship positively too. Organisations should look at how recognition can be used to positively impact work-life balance and the home life.
For example, can recognition be linked to family time, such as vouchers for events, or greater flexibility around working hours to allow parents to spend more time with family?