You’ve Got Employee Recognition All Wrong

employee recognitionWhat do you think of when you hear the term “employee recognition?”

I asked this question to a group of front-line and mid-level healthcare managers recently during an extended leadership training course. As part of a word-association exercise, they made this list:

Performance Bonus
Positive feedback
Gift cards
Team lunch

Let’s face it…that’s a lousy list.

Contrary to what that list suggests, employee recognition has very little to do with awards, gifts, and other physical manifestations of appreciation. Employee recognition is not about what the employee receives. It’s about the feelings they experience.

Employee recognition is the acknowledgement of a contribution, effort, talent or skill in such a way that the employee experiences feelings of appreciation. It’s a way of communicating that emphasizes the ways employees achieve, matter, help, and contribute to a greater purpose.

It’s not about the reward. It’s about the sentiment.

It’s not about getting a card. It’s about what’s written inside.

And that’s why the list above is a lousy list. When the focus of employee recognition efforts is on the “prize,” it’s likely the sentiment- the expression of gratitude and appreciation and the subsequent feelings it produces for the employee- gets lost in the shuffle. Formal recognition programs often suffer from this disconnect. (That’s not to say that external rewards aren’t effective. They can be, as long as the emphasis remains on the acknowledgment of the specific ways the employee makes a difference.)

This kind of employee recognition is a critical component of employee engagement. When employees frequently experience feeling valued  and respected, productivity, performance, resiliency and retention are high. Dissatisfaction, disengagement, and turnover are low.

What’s also important is that employee recognition efforts are continuous. Managers who acknowledge their employees only as an occasional gesture are failing to meet their obligation as leaders. Successful leaders work to create environments where employees thrive. This means team members regularly see and hear about the ways they make a difference to those around them. They continuously experience a connection to a purpose greater than themselves.  Leaders create these feelings not through the occasional distribution of gifts or perks, but by continuously taking time and using words to notice, acknowledge, and praise. Effective employee recognition then doesn’t occur as singular, grand gestures, but as continuous, intentional conversations that take place every day.

Joe Mull, M.Ed is the Founder and President of Ally Training & Development, which specializes in leadership training for front-line and mid-level healthcare managers. Visit for more information.

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1 thought on “You’ve Got Employee Recognition All Wrong

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