The Key to Creating an Employee Recognition Program that Works

Key points

  • Employee recognition can be an effective tool to improve performance.
  • How you recognize your employees can make a difference to the results they achieve. Apply employee recognition to the right behaviors and the right people.
  • When used together; money, feedback and recognition seem to have a stronger effect on performance than when used independently.

We all seem to believe that recognizing employees for their work and effort is beneficial. The question is how can we be sure that we are doing it well? How often and when should we recognize people? Is saying “well done” enough? Should we recognize all the members of our team or only those who achieve the best results? Many managerial magazines offer tips on how to recognize employees’ achievements and contribution – but do these tips really work? And, above all, does scientific evidence confirm that recognizing employees helps improve their performance?

Employee recognition can lead to better results

Using recognition, feedback or money to reinforce behaviors and achieve high performance is a practice known as behavioral management. In 2003, Alexander Stajkovic and Fred Luthans conducted a meta-analysis on whether scientific studies support the effectiveness of behavioral management. The results obtained from 72 studies, and over 13,000 participants in organizational contexts confirmed that all three types of reinforcement – recognition, money and feedback- can increase performance.

How to use employee recognition effectively?

It looks like recognizing employees can help improve their performance. It also seems that what makes a real difference to performance is how you use recognition.

Recognition at random moments or for reasons which are unclear probably won’t be effective. It’s very important to determine the behaviors we want to reinforce. Identify behaviors you consider important for the job and for your organization and when you see employees behaving in this way, call them out. Reinforce behavior when it is really deserved. Giving recognition to employees who haven’t achieved their goals could make them feel more competent than they are. It may also diminish the value of your recognition in the eyes of other members of the team.

Employee Recognition
Recognition, money and feedback – combine them to achieve the best results!

Even if employee recognition alone is a simple way  to improve performance, it works better when used together with feedback and monetary incentives. In fact, the impact of combined reinforcers on performance is stronger than the effect of each incentive used separately. Why does this happen? Money, feedback and recognition play slightly different roles for motivation and performance. Money enhances effort as it’s a reward that can be exchanged for different goods and services. Feedback offers information and clarifies goals. Finally, people tend to perceive employee recognition as something that happens before a positive personal outcome (e.g. a promotion or a raise); so recognition may be an incentive for future positive actions. That’s why when you want to increase employee motivation and improve results, you can try to combine the reward of money, feedback and recognition.

Employee Recognition 2

Takeaways for your practice

Solid evidence confirms that employee recognition, when you apply it wisely, may be a simple way to increase performance. When combined, the reinforcement is more than the sum of its parts. Here are some ideas on how you can apply these findings in your practice:

  • Identify the behaviors which lead to excellent results and reinforce them. You can do this together with your team, for example, during a performance review, debrief session, or goal progress check-in. These are examples of questions which may help determine behaviors you want to reinforce:
    • What behaviors do you consider most important for performance? How do they impact employee results?
    • How do you know these behaviors bring better results?
    • When are these behaviors most likely to appear?
  • Make sure that your employees’ performance goals are SMART. This may help you identify behaviors that you want to reinforce.
  • Saying “well done” may not be enough. Specify the behavior you’re recognizing, when it happened, and how it affected an outcome. Saying “well done on finishing the report yesterday” works better than making a general statement of appreciation.
  • Don’t let too much time pass between the behavior and the acknowledgment. Don’t wait for a “better opportunity” or a “perfect occasion” to recognize your employees. It may be better to recognize a person verbally just after the behavior you want to reinforce, than waiting several weeks for the occasion to invite them for lunch!
  • Recognition alone can’t work magic! Remember skill-building and training. In goal-setting conversations, discuss and write down the skills the employee needs to develop to achieve each goal. Also note the methods that could be used to teach the skills.
  • Reinforcement may work better for straightforward and repetitive tasks, which are focused on quantity. In cases of complex, quality-oriented tasks, it may be more difficult to understand which behaviors have larger effects on performance. As a consequence,  it may be harder to use recognition effectively.
  • Don’t confuse reinforcement with micromanagement. Make sure that you reinforce appropriate behavior, but not in a way which hampers employee autonomy.
  • Last but not least, remember to combine recognition with money and feedback! If you want to know more about using incentives such as salary and bonuses to maximize performance, check out the Evidence Summaries we wrote about incentives and performance here:

External Incentives and Internal Motivation – a perfect pairing to boost work performance!

Employee Turnover: Will Money Help Retaining Employees?

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of experimental studies – is highly appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore we can conclude that it is shown that behavioral management interventions increase task performance.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who want to #MakeWorkBetter.

Our mission is to provide leaders and decision-makers with trustworthy and actionable insights from behavioural science.

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Stajkovic, A. D., & Luthans, F. (2003). Behavioral management and task performance in organizations: conceptual background, meta‐analysis, and test of alternative models. Personnel Psychology, 56(1), 155-194.

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