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Recognition is Not Fluffy Stuff: Why Acknowledging Your People is Good for Business

When Canadian survey company Metrics@Work analyzes their database of almost a quarter million staff engagement surveys from hundreds of companies, the results on recognition are disheartening. Of all the organizations that chose to ask their employees about recognition – and how discouraging it is that not all do – employee recognition is the lowest of the 25 most commonly associated factors of engagement. When talent is today’s greatest source of competitive advantage, and that asset walks out the door every night, no business can afford to suffer such poor “market share” in human capital satisfaction.

Employers need to take notice. The highest average recognition score of an organization was 80% satisfied and the lowest 29%. That is a huge range. Imagine how much more those top rated organizations are getting from their talent than those with extremely dissatisfied staff.

Organizations are missing an opportunity right in front of their noses to increase engagement. Of all the variables that are commonly studied in employee engagement surveys, rewards and recognition is the 4th most correlated with it, behind trust in the organization, satisfaction with senior leadership and continuous quality improvement. In fact, all of these variables correlate with each other, so one could argue that a more tangible focus on recognition would be an effective way to increase trust as well as satisfaction with senior leadership. For those who work in continuous improvement cultures, they know their ideas and solutions form the basis of the improvements every day; these gains must be celebrated.

If this doesn’t seem like sufficient evidence about the business case (let alone the human case – think about what type of company you would want to work for), consider this too. Employees are 25% more likely to remain in the organization when they are recognized; it would stand to reason that employees stay in their department with their direct supervisor when they feel what they have to offer is valued and needed. There are many factors that contribute to someone deciding to leave the organization, and not everyone has the luxury of doing so, but if an organization has a turnover issue, or is beginning to trend upwards, it is worth considering (perhaps even asking in exit interviews) how recognition in their work areas and as an organization-at-large could begin to rectify this issue.

We can’t help wondering, how is this not part of the broader discourse of business, like work-life balance is? Let’s hope it’s not because we’re still convinced that recognition is just “fluffy stuff”.

A common thread in the story of the top rated companies in Canada, such as Aecon Group, Nuance Communications, TD Bank and others, is that they have a strong focus on recognizing and leveraging the best in their people. Sure, we have heard of some of the names on the top US list, like Google and Microsoft, however many smaller players are making a big splash on the quality of work life scene such as SAS Institute, BCG Consulting and Admiral Insurance. Organizations don’t need to be huge to make major inroads in cultivating healthy organizational culture. The gains are not just notoriety, but getting the best from talent which also translates into satisfied customers and healthy bottom lines.

We see some major differences in organizational characteristics associated with highest satisfaction with recognition. Employees who were the most satisfied with how well they were recognized report they are more:

  • Engaged in their job overall
  • Engaged with the broader organization
  • Involved with and participate in decision-making
  • Satisfied with senior leaders
  • Trustful of the organization
  • Continually seek ways to improve how work is done (as was their whole team)
  • Innovative (as was their whole team)
  • Satisfied with communication
  • Regularly receive performance feedback and performance is managed well
  • Satisfied with opportunities for advancement
  • Likely to stay with the organization

Can you say this about your workforce and your organization? If not, we hope you are keen to start speaking with employees about what they most need. And here’s a good place to start. According to surveys, the ways employees want to be recognized are through a verbal thank-you (89%), private praise (84%), or written thank-you (82%). Other ways, such as gifts and bonuses, fell lower on the list. It goes back to treating people as the valued asset that they are.

So what can we do if we don’t work for one of the top ranked companies? We can start by recognizing those around us, regardless of our role. We can ask people how they want to be recognized. We can listen to what they tell us and use these methods as often as possible. We can catch people doing their jobs well and genuinely compliment them in real time. We can tell others how we want to be recognized and for what. We can look at the ways we do corporate recognition, and suggest (or change if we are responsible for it) to more personalized and meaningful strategies.

The main thing is do more of what is already working, bring recognition into discourse, and experiment. What is the worst that can happen? People feel empowered and engaged? Remember that what we ask determines what we find and what we focus on grows.


Authors: Sarah McVanel & Brenda Zalter-Minden

Look for Sarah and Brenda’s book due out early 2016 about the power of recognition at an individual, team and organizational level. You can visit Sarah through her company website Greatness Magnified, Facebook, or Twitter @greatnessmagnif. You can visit Brenda Zalter-Minden through her company website BZMSolutions, Facebook, or Twitter @BZMSolutions.

A Froggy Medium

frogAll too often, we forget about the importance of recognizing the small acts of greatness that are all around us in the workplace. We may wish to recognize often, intend to do it, and wish we had more of it ourselves, and yet there’s often a disconnect with need and action.

When I reflect on why this is and speak with other leaders, it’s quite apparent that there isn’t clarity in “how” to recognize greatness that meets the key criteria (for busy leaders) of being quick, easy, low-cost and sustainable. Sometimes even the most “warm and fuzzy” among us struggle to go beyond an ambiguous “good job” for fear of the ramifications of missing someone, starting something we can’t continue, or even just maintaining when our workload kicks into high gear.

Here’s the thing. A few of us have been experimenting with a strange medium for recognition that is catching on because it communicates an important message. We carry around little squishy plastic frogs (that you can buy in a package of about 15 for $1 at our local dollar store). Why frogs? It stands for Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness. Why little squishy frogs? They’re fun. Recognition should be fun and we don’t have enough of it in the workplace today. Why carry them around? You never know when you will catch someone “doing greatness” as part of their everyday work. It also reminds us to recognize people all day long by feeling them every time we reach into our pocket. Why carry a few at a time? We know if we leave our office at the end of the day with frogs still in our pocket, we either didn’t spend enough time out of our offices or we didn’t sustain our intention of noticing greatness.

I should probably mention I work for an organization of over 1500 people and I’ve been there for 6 years. I’ve met a lot of people, but I also try to notice greatness in people I have never met – handing over squishy frogs and telling someone about a great thing you just noticed is quite an introduction tactic! I should also mention that I’m a senior leader. I think it’s important that people see folks who are making decisions for the organization noticing the great things that people do. After all, staff are the people adding value to the customer’s experience everyday, and we can never forget to keep the customer front and centre. When staff feel valued, they will be more resourceful to leverage this talent, which only benefits the customer.

Does it work? Do professionals really like to get handed a colourful squishy frog in the middle of a busy workday? You bet they do. Here’s just one story:

K is a dynamic nurse who took on a peer leadership role less than year ago. She thrived in the role, so much so that she began to wonder if she could spread her degree of influence as the manager of many areas. She applied for the first opening, prepared extensively, got focused, and put herself out there. After an interview I saw her and asked, “How awesome did you do K?” She replied matter-of-factly, “I gave it my best shot and was totally me. I was prepared, I gave them a list of all the things I’ve done to develop myself over the last year, I told them my ideas for making things better, and that I am a clean slate ready to be moulded. I told them I’m ready for the challenge and I’ll work hard. And if I don’t get it, I’m ready for any other challenge that they feel is right for me.” I was blown away. I was so proud. There was only one thing to do. I consulted my pocket and pulled out a purple colour to match her vibrant personality. “K, have you ever been frogged?” She eyed me suspiciously and replied “No…” I shared, “Well, you deserve to be. I have a frog for you. FROG stands for Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness. The greatness I want to recognize in you is your leadership. You just keep growing and thriving in anything you put your mind to, and are helping your peers to come along with you. We are a better place because of you K.” Tears formed in the back of K’s eyes and a smile swept across her face. After a few seconds, she whispered, “Thank-you”, took the frog and stated “I wish it was sticky so I could hang it right on my badge! I think I’ll use a safety-pin from home. I will wear it proudly.” Nothing else needed to be said. She knew she was great. The frog was a symbol that reinforced it.

Any medium will do if it fits with a compelling and sincere message. Sometimes, even a little squishy frog that costs a dime can do the trick!

Sarah McVanel is a leader in organizational development, communications and community engagement in healthcare. She is a certified HR, OD and coaching professional. Look for her upcoming book with colleague Brenda Zalter-Minden, FROG: Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness or visit her blog