Rewards and Recognition Done Right

by  Scott Mautz  |  Team Dynamics
Rewards and Recognition Done Right

Not all forms of Rewards & Recognition (R&R) are created equal. In actuality, as human beings we aren’t profoundly motivated by the tangible reward or recognition itself. It’s about the meaning behind the reward. In fact, an international employee survey by Make Their Day! found that almost 60 percent of the most meaningful recognition is free.

Employees are looking for meaning, not things. That is the distinction I make about rewards and recognition programs that are “done right.” It is all too easy to drain the meaning out of R&R and miss the opportunity to create fulfillment and further inspire elevated contributions.

Here are five principles to help you execute rewards and recognition in a manner that will matter.

Personalize so that you don’t trivialize

A cookie-cutter approach to R&R can make recipients feel as unappreciated as if they weren’t getting rewarded or recognized. Great managers take the time to understand how each employee likes to be recognized and what makes each individual employee feel valued. You can start by asking your employees:

● How do you like to be recognized? (e.g., formally or informally, in private or in public, as an individual or as part of a group, from a one-up manager/two-up manager/peer/direct report, verbally or in print)

● What form do you like the reward to take? (e.g., words of appreciation, increased responsibility, salary increase, more autonomy, challenging new work, opportunity to showcase good work, time off, being leveraged as an expert, promotion, celebration events).

Take the time to ask. You might even share your own preferences. Flesh out the many forms that rewards can take. Discuss similarities, differences, and new insights gained about each other. Identify specifically what you and your employee can do to fully value each other.

Get everyone in on the act

Managers don’t have to be the only ones handing out R&R. Encourage employees to practice peer-to-peer recognition and you will create a virtuous circle of meaning. The good news is that stimulating such powerful recognition can be relatively simple. When you catch people in the act of recognizing someone else, let them know how much you appreciate it–reward rewarding. Remind people of the pay-it-forward effect their efforts will have. Provide simple recognition resources like thank-you cards or low-budget themed rewards. Simply choose to add peer-to-peer recognition to your options for rewarding and recognizing.

Be frequent, but not frivolous

Odds are you will never hear people complaining that they are receiving too much recognition. And interestingly enough, the best workers that get the most praise are often the most insecure–it’s what drives them to perform (so don’t assume they are being over-recognized). For anyone, missed opportunities to reward and recognize are missed opportunities to energize. However, remember that frequent, not frivolous, is the goal. Be clear about establishing what the important things are to reward and recognize (for the business and cultural mission). Whether it’s leadership, risk taking, collaboration, or any other important behavior/accomplishment, clarify the kinds of behaviors that will be rewarded. And to maximize motivation linked to higher performance, be sure to celebrate results, not just activity. Identify anchor events that, when recognized, would derive memorable meaning and motivation for the employee. Such events as a heartfelt celebration when an employee leaves a work group, making a fuss over a new employee’s entry, or a thoughtfully executed recognition of an employee’s anniversary can increase the frequency of R&R in a meaningful manner.

Celebrate first downs and touchdowns

Beyond supporting the right frequency of R&R, it is important to support the right breadth as well. When major results are achieved, there are invariably important milestones that happened along the way that enabled the major achievement. The supporting cast and results that led up to the major result should be celebrated in addition to the major result itself. In this way you maximize the number of rightful participants in the meaning-making efforts.

Deliberate the delivery

How you deliver rewards and recognition to employees can stick the landing or crash the landing. Don’t kill the intent. You should think through the delivery with attention to detail. For example, sincerity is key; if it comes from the heart it sticks in the mind. Also remember that “Specificity is a must; general praise leads to a general malaise,” and “Timeliness is critical. Drift creates a rift.” Let R&R drift past the time a praise-worthy event occurred and you create a rift between receipt of the recognition and any potential for associated meaning.

Finally, you should start from a core of a strong relationship with the recipient if at all possible, otherwise rewards and recognition from you won’t matter much.

What has been your most meaningful reward at work? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia bahrialtay

About The Author

Articles By scott-mautz
Scott Mautz is author of Make It Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning , which was just named a “Best Book of 2015” by Soundview BusinessBooks. He’s also an award winning keynote speaker, and a 20+ year veteran of Procter & Gamble, having run several thriving, multi-billion dollar divisions along the way. Connect with Scott at  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Smith  |  02 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Scott – excellent post on a subject which does not get as much attention as it should.

I think recognition and reward of employees is essential, and when we do this well, the benefits are almost unlimited in terms of increased job satisfaction, better productivity, less conflict, increased retention, and so on.

This is one of the most specific posts I have seen on this topic, going way beyond the idea that money is not the only or best motivator. Let me comment on a couple of things from the many things that caught my attention:

1) “What form do you like the reward to take?” You listed many possibilities here and one that stuck out for me personally was to be leveraged as an expert. I don’t particularly like the term “leveraged”, but I know what you mean and this way of rewarding a person speaks directly to folks like me who seek validation for our skills and our abilities.

2) “Get everyone in on the act” is a great idea that my experience tells me is much more difficult to implement and maintain that we might think. In one large corporation, few folks beyond the supervisor/manager level utilized the peer-to-peer acknowledge tools which were richly produced and widely available. The result was that management was seen as the font of the attention, which is not significantly different from the status quo.

In another, mostly professionals and mostly online corporation, the peer-to-peer acknowledgment program (also well-designed and distributed widely) has just been “killed”, due to lack of use. Not sure what the answer is, but it ain’t easy:)

3) “Celebrate First Downs and Touchdowns” – again, many organizations are much better at celebrating when they score, but not so good at recognizing the movement down the field (to keep the football thing going:). This hooks nicely with another section where you make good points about clarifying what is being measured, the milestones, and so on. If people know that doing one step is a big deal, they will probably do it better and just might celebrate doing it themselves:)

I guess that is what you are putting forth as an end goal – get the organization to the point where leaders are not the only or primary generators of recognition and rewards … get everyone so engaged in the process that it becomes part of the culture.

Great stuff, as always:)


Scott Mautz  |  02 Mar 2016  |  Reply

John – duly noted on the word “leveraged”. And I really appreciate your reinforcement of the point that being tailored about what form the rewards & recognition should take resonates particularly well with those who are seeking validation for their skills and abilities. Makes me want to tailor my R&R all the more!
Thx as always for your insightful responses. I always learn something from you.

Eileen McDargh  |  04 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Excellent post. I have always felt that formalized employee recognition programs were regarded with cynicism. They are never specific and seem to be done behind closed doors. Frequent, personal, and to the point recognition makes great sense. Thanks for writing.

Scott Mautz  |  06 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Eileen – thx so much for taking the time to comment on this post. I so believe that we can either stick the landing or crash the landing when it comes to rewards & recognition. It’s so essential to get it right!

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