How do different recognition strategies affect happiness and productivity?

recognition strategies

Need to know:

  • Recognition programmes tap into the human need for meaning, reducing the effects of stress and promoting positive, productive behaviours.
  • Technology is invaluable, as it allows for an instant, easy and far-reaching strategy, but employers should be wary of relying on stickers and badges over the written word.
  • Appreciation of behaviour, rather than recognition of targets achieved, is an important step in making employees feel personally valued.

Recognition has the potential to boost employee happiness by injecting meaning into the working day, while rewarding positive, productive behaviour.

Raphael Crawford-Marks, co-founder and chief executive officer at recognition platform provider Bonusly, says: “Humans need to feel like their work matters, like they’re working on something important that makes a difference, that’s visible, and that people care about, and recognition gets at that need.”

Tiny Pulse’s Employee retention report 2018, which surveyed more than 25,000 employees between January to October 2018, found that 24% of those who had not received recognition in the past two weeks had recently interviewed elsewhere, compared with just 13% who had received recognition from their employer.

Improved retention is only one part of the wider influence of recognition. Averil Leimon, executive coach and director at leadership consultancy White Water Group, explains: “If [employers] want a humane organisation, one that reduces the influences of stress, absenteeism and presenteeism, it often rests in the fact that people recognise each other’s strengths, tell them they’re doing a good job and make them want to come in tomorrow and do it even better.”

Formal, codified recognition

Traditionally, employee recognition has taken the form of long-service awards, annual performance rewards, or employee of the month programmes. With job-hopping becoming increasingly normal, however, rewards for long-service might not have the desired effect, while codified, formal recognition programmes run the risk of lacking sincerity.

In addition, they can feel exclusive, notes Denise Willett, senior director, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), at Achievers: “Those employee of the month or top annual performer awards, they will really reward the best of the best, which is great, but what we are trying to do with everyday recognition as a habit is move the entire organisation on the same journey.”

Sinéad Healy, founder and managing director at recognition platform provider Fanclub, agrees: “There will be people who get a vast amount of appreciation for what they’re like to be around. These people are massively valued. That should be worthy of an annual award.”

Finding the time now

However, the problem with traditional forms of recognition may not be their codified nature. Having a formal, scheduled system has its advantages.

Sean Kelly, chief executive officer at Snacknation, which has weekly scheduled ‘crush it calls’ where employees state what they value about one another, says: “When you force it, you make sure that you’re making room for it. Forcing false recognition is inauthentic, but when you simply make space for it and then allow people to voluntarily give authentic recognition, people realise that they are seen by others, that they matter, that their work matters.”

So, the answer is not necessarily to do away with all scheduled, codified forms of recognition, but to find methods that fit better with the world employees live in.

An effective recognition system should be timely, frequent, specific and inclusive, adds Crawford-Marks. “[Organisations] can have much more frequent recognition, maybe of the small daily wins that employees contribute that add up to big successes,” he explains.

Personal and emotional

For recognition programmes to boost happiness and productivity on a day-to-day basis, they need to create and harness personal connections. While face-to-face conversations are the most obvious way of achieving this effect, it does not typically scale well.

For Kelly, there are other methods of achieving this personal touch. “I don’t know if there’s anything more important than writing a card,” he says. “How often do people write today? It says they care enough to do this, when they could have been doing so many other things.”


The effort involved in procuring and hand writing a card might be part of what gives recognition more impact. The other side of this argument, however, is that using face-to-face or hand-written methods can create barriers that cause recognition to slip down the priority list.

“Everything in our consumer lives is making our personal lives easier and more curated and we need to see that happen in the workplace,” notes Willett.

Technology provides the potential for accessible, simple and far-reaching recognition methods.

“With a platform, it is easy to give written recognition that is meaningful, visible, frequent and timely, so [employers] get all those other benefits,” says Crawford-Marks. “It is not perhaps quite as impactful as if said in person, but employees are going to do it more frequently. The benefits far outweigh the slight diminishment.”

Public, transparent and fair

Using an app or platform, particularly with peer-to-peer recognition capabilities, creates increased visibility around recognition, which can amplify its effects.

“When [organisations] allow employees to recognise in all ways, up, across, down, everywhere, and then bring transparency into that, it starts to speak to the many. [Businesses] start to be able to share the great things that are happening,” says Willett.

This can also help managers to have more oversight and understanding of their team’s strengths.

“Some people are much better at displaying what they’ve done than others, so the quiet ones who just get on with their work don’t get recognition,” says Leimon.

Peer-to-peer, everyday recognition that harnesses technology therefore allows for positive behaviours that might not be obvious to be recorded and appreciated in a public forum.

“It’s very important, especially as a leader, to call out others in front of groups,” says Kelly. “It not only makes them feel good, but also lets other people know that even if [leaders] are really focused on problems and driving forward, they’re taking the time to stop and recognise individuals. It’s not just having an impact on the person, but everyone else around them, creating a culture of recognition.”

Points for prizes

Another side of technology is the ability to award points, which can then be exchanged for rewards. This can be an effective way to incentivise positive behaviour, but Healy warns that recognition via rewards can have a short shelf-life.

“The first time [employees] get a gift voucher it’s amazing, the second time it’s just a gift voucher and the third [they] wonder why [they] didn’t get more,” she explains.

Relying on badges and icons can also draw employers away from the importance and impact of written feedback on employee happiness.

However, the gamification elements of points-based systems can still have positive effects.

“When there isn’t that point system involved [alongside written comments], participation in giving recognition drops, because the [organisation] is effectively telling employees that it doesn’t really matter,” says Crawford-Marks. “If they put a relatively small amount of money behind it, it drives tremendous levels of participation.”

Appreciation, not recognition

In the attempt to boost employee happiness, it is important not to simply recognise results.

“[Employees] usually get recognition when [they have] done something, hit a deadline, achieved a target,” says Healy. “Superstars will get lots of recognition and those in roles that are easily aligned to hitting a target.”

This can tacitly encourage poor behaviour, as long as the goals are reached, which might have a negative effect on employee happiness in the long run.

“Someone who built positive relationships in the process might get the same results as the person who just bullied everyone into doing something, but the team that’s cohesive will go on to better things, while the one that’s been bullied isn’t going to function well,” explains Leimon.

Employers should, therefore, work to reward the behaviour that helped reach a target, or simply appreciate everyday positives.

Furthermore, employees who are rewarded for their efforts, rather than being judged purely on their success or failure, are more likely to be innovative and creative in the future.

Reducing negative stress

When an individual experiences a period of high pressure, recognition and appreciation can be the key to stopping this natural and healthy part of work from becoming unpleasant and untenable.

“Work does not equate to stress automatically,” Leimon concludes. “In fact, it gives us the opportunity for accomplishment, which we know is a huge part of happiness and wellbeing. Pressure is essential for us. Work is fabulous for us, if it absolutely plays to our strengths, if bosses know our strengths and use them.

“That will come from confidence, self-knowledge and delight in the relationship with the employer. [Employees] will want to please their employer, not because they’re scared, but because they love the fact that people really appreciate what they do.”

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