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Employee Recognition That Drives Business Results

Author: Luke Freeman, Purpose & Performance Group


How often should we recognize employees? What kinds of recognition make a difference? As more companies implement social recognition programs and the neuroscience of performance advances, we’re beginning to see emerging patterns about recognition that drives business results.

What is Recognition?

First things first. What do we mean when we talk about recognition in the world of work? In sociology, recognition refers to the acknowledgment of someone’s status, positive traits, or achievements. This is a helpful way to think about recognition because it allows leaders to address the basic human need for social clarity. Let’s break it down into the three areas of acknowledgment.

  • Status: People are social creatures who depend on one another for survival.  We have an innate need to know our status within our tribe(s), including our group at work. Knowing this status provides certainty and psychological safety that’s needed to allow focus on creating value for the organization through learning, production, or providing feedback. Without clarity of status, people naturally operate in a state of anxiety marked by social hyper-awareness that’s difficult to move beyond.
  • Traits: A key element of team member loyalty is value congruence, or how aligned one’s values are with those of the organization. Value congruence has been correlated with job satisfaction, identifying with the organization, and lower rates of turnover. Recognizing positive underlying beliefs and values of team members signals the organization holds similar values. This allows team members to understand what personal values and informed behaviors are a “fit” in the social group of the workplace.  Developing this understanding across all team members allows for lower turnover of value-aligned team members and “strategic turnover” of people those whose values are misaligned.
  • Achievements: This is where most of our minds go when we think of recognition at work. When leaders recognize individual or team behaviors and/or accomplishments that are “wins” they clearly communicate what it looks like to have high value in the social group and outline a path to success and status.

In addition, recognition programs should be aligned with other initiatives in the company’s total employee experience. By integrating recognition programs as one ingredient in the “employee experience recipe”, you maximize movement of the engagement needle and drive business results. Recognition also has the benefit of flexibility. Through recognition, businesses can reinforce desired performance with strategic initiatives by identifying the values or behaviors of early adopters and high-performance contributors. When used this way, recognition is a low-cost way to clarify new direction and priorities for all team members.

Recognition Best Practices

Research is becoming more clear on how to execute recognition while achieving high levels of business performance.  For leaders charged with building or supporting recognition programs, best practices can be broken down to two main areas: 1) frequency of recognition and 2) quality of the recognition given.

  1. Frequency of Recognition

As more companies implement and test social recognition we gain insight into the importance of the frequency of recognition experiences. In 2018 an internal study at Cisco showed the highest engagement gains in team members who were recognized at least 10 times/year, and by at least 8 different people. Hershey’s 2017 internal study of recognition showed a strong relationship between frequency of recognition experiences and turnover in their global workforce. At Hershey, employees who received an average of 1 recognition per year had a 15% turnover rate. Employees with 6 or more recognitions had a 4% turnover rate.

  1. Quality of Recognition

Research by the global consulting firm Deloitte found the meaningfulness of recognition influences business performance. Meaningful recognition includes these elements:

  • Accurate: Based on real knowledge & understanding of the work the team member is doing
  • Character-focused: Mentions the internal qualities of the team member that led to the behavior
  • Specific: Tells the story of what the team member did that was “above & beyond”
  • Timely: Doesn’t feel like an afterthought or a “check the box” recognition to create a talking point for a scheduled event
  • Delivered in the manner the recipient prefers: Keeps the team member’s “language of recognition” in mind
  • Ongoing: Recognition given once a year for multiple accomplishments will lift engagement for 2-3 weeks, or recognition for each accomplishment can lift engagement for 2-3 weeks multiple times a year


Research is painting a picture that continues to clarify how recognition programs should be structured. Our human brain is wired to seek out and interpret signals of social clarity. Effective recognition programs seek to create organizational alignment from the most senior leaders to front line personnel. Recognition programs are a vehicle to provide status for team members while clarifying the traits and behaviors that elevate status within the workplace social system. Team members are empowered to spend discretionary effort when they are provided clarity regarding their status and when what success looks like within a particular organization is no longer a guessing game. Recognition provides organizations the ability to tell compelling stories about their brand, and what their products or services mean to team members and consumers. Recognition offers incredible value and high utility when it is frequent, ongoing, and of exceptionally high-quality.

While following these recognition best practices will effectively drive business results, the greatest challenge is in implementation. Reach out to us to discuss your unique business needs, what you’ve tried, and to discuss solutions that could augment your current employee experience. 

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