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.