The Psychology of Employee Recognition

There should be no mystery to the benefits of employee recognition. “Well-established in psychology literature and touted by management experts for decades, the principles of recognition, rewards and reinforcement are linked to higher levels of motivation, engagement and productivity, lower turnover and the ability to attract and retain top talent,” says Dr. David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association (APA). An expert on workplace issues, Ballard heads up the association’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

Despite these measurable benefits, recognition is sorely lacking in real-world work settings. “In a 2014 APA survey of the U.S. workforce, only 51 percent of working Americans said they felt valued by their employers. More than a third (36 percent) had received no form of recognition in the past year, and only 47 percent said recognition was provided fairly.”

“Not everybody is motivated by the same incentives or values the same types of recognition.”

Why aren’t more companies taking advantage of the benefits incentive and reward programs can deliver? Ballard points out that CEOs tend to be operationally focused—too consumed with the nuts and bolts and quantifiables of management to focus on recognition. What’s more, prevailing research suggests that non-practitioners don’t think it’s important and therefore don’t prioritize it, while others say they lack the time, or don’t know how to effectively recognize or reward their employees.

“With complex, high-level strategic issues commanding their attention, even an interpersonally savvy CEO may not feel the need to recognize the contributions of their accomplished, self-motivated executive staff,” says Ballard. “Failing to do so may be a missed opportunity to align and sustain their motivation through challenging times, model leadership qualities you want cascading throughout the organization and drive business results.”

“To move forward, a CEO must reframe employee recognition as a business imperative,” he noted, offering these tips for getting started:

Tie recognition to the organization’s mission and objectives. Use recognition not as a perk, but as a tool to advance the organization’s goals by rewarding performance. Reinforcing desired behaviors strengthens organizational culture by highlighting actions consistent with core values.

Learn what motivates your senior leaders. Not everybody is motivated by the same incentives or values the same types of recognition.

Build recognition skills. This involves learning the characteristics of effective recognition and how to apply them. Talk to experts in your HR department, learn from other CEOs or work with an industrial-organizational or consulting psychologist to build new competencies.

Find what works for you. Recognition doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. Use approaches that are consistent with your style and fit into your existing workflow and available resources.