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Recognition motivates employees

August 14, 2013

Employees respond positively to positive recognition. Assuming that statement is true, a question follows: Does positive recognition to employees have to cost a lot of money?

Debra Sikanas, an expert in the field of employee recognition, answered that question by first drawing a distinction between “reward” and “recognition.”

“Rewards are higher-priced incentives such as money or free trips. You have to be careful with things like that because you have a tendency to want to outdo yourself every year — doing something more than you did last year. Also, elaborate reward programs can induce some employees to try to cheat the system just to get the reward,” Sikanas explained.

“Our idea is to give the employee a pat on the back,” she said, “and there are a lot of ways to say thank you.” Sikanas cited one example, the “easy, squeezy stress buster” — a squeezable item about the size of a person’s hand that comes in forms such as the heart-shaped “thank you” or the star-shaped “shining star.”

Sikanas co-authored two books, “Priceless Motivation” and “The Joy of Recognition,” and was past president of the National Association for Employee Recognition. In “Priceless Motivation” she pointed out the following elements of a well-designed recognition program.

An effective employee recognition program:

  • Meets people’s needs for achievement and recognition.
  • Translates the employer’s values into specific work habits.
  • Focuses efforts on achieving specific goals.
  • Creates a culture where people really want to do their best.
  • Shows people what’s really important to the organization.
  • Improves attitudes and morale.
  • Produces role models for future programs.

“When people are routinely recognized for their efforts, they begin to trust the system. They are more committed to the organization,” said Sikanas.

She also said starting a recognition program helps supervisors become better managers. “Managers learn to listen more to the people they work with. They also must make a conscientious effort to look for recognition opportunities,” she said.

Many studies confirm Sikanas’s premise of recognition over reward. Researcher Alfie Kohn has said point-blank: “Rewards are the ultimate short-term fix… When people are thinking about how much they’re going to get for what they’re doing, they tend to choose the easiest possible task.” Kohn is author of the book “Punished by Rewards.”

Psychologist A.H. Maslow taught that recognition is near the top in a person’s hierarchy of needs. “Effectively recognized employees develop feelings of self-respect, achievement, adequacy and prestige. They know they are appreciated so their next need is to be a self-sufficient worker.” According to Maslow, all of us have a need for the respect of others. All of us have a need for appreciation, for recognition.

A study conducted by Robert Half International, one of the world’s largest staffing firms asked business executives to name the single biggest reason employees leave a company. The results: personality conflicts: 8 percent; limited authority: 13 percent; compensation: 29 percent; and lack of recognition and praise: 34 percent (other answers: 16 percent).

Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation, Inc. Chicago, has said most employees consider money a given in their relationship with their boss. They know they’re going to get paid. “Money is their entitlement in exchange for their work. But recognition is a gift. Just saying ‘thank you,’ praising people when they do well instead of just noticing the mistakes, can be the most powerful motivator of all,” he said. Nelson is author of “1001 Ways to Reward Employees” and “1001 Rewards and Recognition Fieldbook.”

To start a recognition program in your organization, here are eight strategies to keep the program on course:

1. Clarity – Make sure what you are doing is clear to your managers and employees.

2. Simplicity – Don’t have too many rules.

3. Feedback – Make sure your managers and employees know that you want to hear their thoughts on the program.

4. Training in giving recognition – Do you and your managers know how to praise?

5. Tools – If you’re going to have a recognition program, you need tools to implement it. (The tool doesn’t have to be an “easy, squeezy stress buster” — but it has to be something, and you have to have it on hand.)

6. Facelift – Change the recognition tools every once in a while just to keep it interesting.

7. Creativity – Don’t be afraid to do something imaginative.

8. Research – Find out how other companies recognize their employees. You’ll get some good ideas for your own program. 

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