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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.

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