The Exponential Power of Recognition

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “What’s the data and literature to substantiate that recognition is one of the most important strategies we need to embrace in business today?” And, very specifically, “How is it going to boost engagement?

The Conference Board of Canada is an organization that looks at Canadian businesses across every industry and attempts to discover what they do to demonstrate rewards and recognition.  Here are the findings of their recently published survey, The Power of Appreciation, which outlines types of programs in place, rewards given, costs and areas of success and challenge.

Below are some of the most common ways to use recognition that perhaps you already use, and some opportunities that you can capitalize on right away.

  1. Years of Service

The most common form of recognition found in the Conference Board of Canada’s research was years of service with over 90% of organizations having some type of milestone program. This is similar to their past studies. Not only that, over 50% of an organization’s recognition budget is actually spent on this. If this is the case, it better be the best option; you know that expression about all your eggs being in one basket! Unfortunately, it’s not the best basket if you’re going to put all your eggs there (and I don’t recommend only one option for recognition).

Think about your organization. If you’re a small business, consider the ways in which you work with clients. How many people value long tenure? In your organization, perhaps you have a lot of unionized staff, people that stay with you a long time, and in that case, years of service recognition is a great fit. Would they be satisfied, however, if the first time they felt truly valued was after 5 or 10 or even 25 years on the job? Imagine your child, spouse or neighbour taking at least 5 years to tell you that you mattered to them. How long would that relationship stay in good form? Would you say to yourself, “it’s okay, I know they are mandated to tell me I’m great in another few years…I’ll hold on until then.

Consider the generational mix you have in your organization; as much as I believe there are more similarities than differences between generations, one difference is the length of time on the job. Will younger workers be willing to wait 5 or more years to feel valued? Do people in your industry or organization stay or do you have a turnover issue? Perhaps it’s not attrition but simply the stability in your industry or cyclical nature of your geographic region. Either way, if you have turnover, all the more reason why recognition needs to be more frequent.

  1. Retirement Programs

The second most common form of recognition is retirement…an even longer time to be validated! Retirement Programs are great for similar reasons when we have years of service celebrations, however it may be a Legacy Program, as opposed to the most important program. One of the biggest challenges with both of these top two strategies, where we spend the majority of our funds, is when it’s likely too late to say “we value you” so folks know they’re on the right track and they matter.

Picture yourself watching somebody else receive an award. If you’ve only been there for 6 months, or 3 years, and the first award you can get is 10 Years of Service, or perhaps retirement, you may not feel motivated to be able to keep doing your best work.

Very rarely are those two top awards tied to your performance. Performance recognition is beginning to trend, however, not fast enough. The report revealed what people want most is sincere, timely and easy to use strategies. So far, these programs are neither.

That said, honouring traditions is important; if retirement programs are valued keep them. Just don’t rely on them as one of your core programs. Look for ways to show value earlier.

  1. Leader to Staff Appreciation

The third most common form of recognition is leader to staff appreciation. You probably would have expected this to be the top one, because we know that this is the most common way that employees like to be appreciated and valued. This can be the “crutch” of expensive and “flashy” recognition programs such as years of service; it lets peers and leaders off the hook from finding ways to show they value each other on a regular basis.

The good news is, most often leader to staff appreciation is focused on performance, specifically individual achievement followed by collaboration (which is on the rise) followed by teamwork. These are the things we want to see more of. As a general rule of thumb, any time an organization is seen as a leading practice when it comes to recognition, they’re recognizing things that they want to see more of.

  1. Corporate Recognition

The fourth most common form of recognition is corporate recognition. These can be one offs right through to annual events. What might be included here? Major innovations, media coverage, safety milestone (such as being injury free for a year). These are great things that you want to reinforce, the type of behaviour and performance you want to see more of.

When it works well it is a great relationship and community builder for your culture. When it seems forced and artificial, it could have the opposite effect that we intended. And certainly, when it’s for optics (i.e., for shareholders, to get good media coverage), employees or leaders will see right through that. If it’s supposed to be a celebration of what the team has done, it should be created with the team in mind.

Given how much money we spend on those one-off events, it’s in your best interest to ensure it’s meaningful.

  1. Peer to Peer Recognition

The fifth most common way is peer to peer recognition. What the literature consistently says is that this is our biggest missed opportunity. Not only is it free, or virtually free—every organization, no matter the industry, can afford to do it—but, it’s also the fastest way to spread a positive culture and boost engagement. Why you ask?

There are a lot more employees than there are leaders, or Public Relations departments and other departments who are putting on these major events.

How can we spread recognition at a peer to peer level? Thank you cards, e-cards, having poster boards around where people can write acknowledgements; role-modeling it and really celebrating when you see it.

These are some of the strategies that successful organizations use. It’s those organizations that practice multiple forms of recognition that have really embraced and are practicing peer to peer recognition on a regular basis.

  1. Celebration of Life Events

Finally, we have life events that are usually personal milestones (e.g., getting married, having a baby, becoming a grandparent, running a marathon, graduation, obtaining a new designation). There are many ways to get creative in this type of recognition. Some of my favourite examples are clients who have sent a thank you home to a family. To say thanks for supporting your mom, your dad, your spouse, for working so hard on this project. Or perhaps even the birth of a baby. It also builds exponential power of recognition because you are probably surprised when you get acknowledgement for that.

Celebrating life events can be done at a local level, too. There’s a range about how much is being organized corporately versus locally. There’s a shift toward local, and I strongly encourage you, whether you are an employee, a middle manager, senior leader or the business owner, as much as you can make it local, celebrate in a meaningful way, that’s where you get the best balance.

When employees and leaders don’t feel hindered to practice recognition in the way that best fits their culture, then you have a recipe for success.

Want more great resources to use to keep recognition meaningful, timely and fresh? Download a whole host of free valuable resources here.


“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

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Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

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