Conventional wisdom and even cursory observation would tell you there’s a strong correlation between employee recognition and healthy workplace cultures. For years, we’ve analyzed and measured it. But this year we found a causal link—hard evidence that personalized recognition directly impacts the strength of the connection between employees—which subsequently affects culture and business performance. Furthermore, recognition that’s tailored to individuals can have an even greater effect across the organization. Unlike the lackluster transactional recognition employees often receive, truly personalized appreciation is transformative. Especially when it creates employee experiences that reflect and support an intentional workplace culture.
Recognizing employee accomplishments is vital for building strong relationships at work. But many employees have difficulty admitting they need or want recognition. This year’s research sought to uncover why. The results were surprising.
Some employees have never had meaningful recognition in their careers and have learned to survive without it. Others had childhoods that lacked rewards and recognition, so they focused inward and became more self-motivated. Still others have built a psychological wall between themselves and their colleagues to maintain a professional distance.
But perhaps the most significant finding in our research on this subject is a causal link between recognition and connection. In one experiment, employees received various levels of recognition for spending extra effort in support of a colleague. The unexpected and profound results: In the absence of any recognition, the existing connection between the employee and colleague was severely damaged. (For more on the experiment, see the research brief above.)
Connections at work do more than support employee happiness in the workplace. They help employees perform better. And recognition deepens the connections employees crave. The giver acknowledges the value of a coworker and demonstrates their appreciation. The recipient feels seen; they believe they matter and are valued. And, as recognition is shared across the organization, the connections amplify.
Recognition builds trust, camaraderie, and the perception that an employee’s contribution counts. Nearly 90% of employees have high trust in a leader who recognizes their accomplishments, compared to 48% who feel the same level of trust without recognition.1
If the goal is to build connection, then recognition cannot be generic; it must be sincere and tailored to the individual recipient. In a hybrid work model, organizations may struggle with how to evolve their recognition programs, particularly since employees won’t be physically together as often. However, meaningful recognition doesn’t have to be complicated. Rethink how recognition fits into your new employee experience. What systems or processes might you have to change or enhance? One fact is increasingly clear: integrated, personalized recognition is a potent means to help employees feel connected and do more great work.
RECOGNITION MUST BE INTEGRATED
No matter the type of recognition (public, eCard, monetary, or non-monetary), giving and receiving it builds connection. Conversely, a lack of recognition diminishes connection. Based on our employee recognition experiment, failing to recognize a colleague for great work results in the lowest chances of future connection and support, whereas higher levels of recognition lead to better opportunities for connection and support.
To ensure great work gets appreciated as it happens, recognition should be a constant, integrated element of an organization’s culture. To be truly integrated, recognition must be personalized, part of the daily employee experience, and celebrate a variety of achievements.
If recognition is an integrated part of the natural flow of work, it’s far more likely to be given in a timely manner when it will have the greatest impact. And, when leaders and peers frequently show appreciation for employee contributions, there are myriad opportunities for employees to feel connected to each other, to the organization’s purpose, and to success.
Figure 7. INTEGRATED RECOGNITION
Eight ways to assess how deeply recognition is ingrained in an organization's culture.
“The single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience…[W]e want to be validated. We want to be understood….As soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and inevitably, in their way, asks this question: ‘Was that OK?’ I’ve heard it from heroes and homemakers. [We] all want to know one thing: ‘Was that OK?’ ‘Did you hear me?’ ‘Do you see me?’ ‘Did what I say mean anything to you?’”
—OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST, PRODUCER, AND PHILANTHROPIST
RECOGNITION MUST BE PERSONALIZED
Integrated recognition helps all employees thrive at work, but recognition preferences and impact vary across each of the five employee personas referenced earlier in this report: Socializers, Taskers, Builders, Coasters, and Achievers.
Coasters are highly responsive to recognition with a significant lift in great work (19x higher probability) when it occurs, as are Taskers (4.5x higher probability) and Socializers (4x higher probability).
In our research, we saw different types of recognition also affect feelings of connection differently for each group. For the often-introverted Taskers, public praise has a negative effect, but eCards and monetary eCards increase connection. For Builders, any form of recognition builds connection. And, not surprisingly, public appreciation has the biggest impact on the more outgoing Achievers.
“Recognition helps maintain an energized environment, allows for more connection between people, and makes the employee experience meaningful.”
—KARINE CLÉMENT-DEBROSSE, SENIOR ADVISOR, HUMAN RESOURCES, BDC
A personalized, flexible recognition approach will ensure employees in all groups feel more connected and inspired to do great work.
1. Personalize recognition
Not every employee wants to be recognized in the same way with the same type of experience or award. The more reward-receptive groups (i.e., Socializers and Achievers) respond positively to more public recognition, while Taskers and Coasters prefer smaller presentations. Achievers want recognition to connect them to purpose, and both Builders and Achievers like a senior leader to be part of the experience.
Remind leaders to get to know their people as individuals and think about each employee’s recognition preferences as they plan their recognition moments. This will ensure recognition is as meaningful and impactful as possible.
2. Provide a flexible recognition solution
Recognition should, of course, align with and connect employee contributions to the organization’s values and its overall success, but how programs do this should be flexible to ensure employees will use them more often and, ultimately, feel more connected to each other.
Offer a variety of methods, messages, awards, etc., so that people can appropriately personalize recognition when they give it. And be sure to include an option for monetary recognition (eCards with redeemable points, for example) as it has the highest effect on connection for all employee segments.
A recognition software platform that’s immediate, simple to use, and easy to access dramatically helps integrate recognition into workplace culture. Also, it’s a good idea to have a clear process and provide resources so employees know how to create a meaningful recognition experience—in part by knowing what elements to personalize.
“The everyday thank-you is just as important as recognition for big achievements. You need to offer this type of flexibility so your recognition continues to be meaningful and individualized.”
—LYNDA NEWCOMB, HEAD OF HR, KRUGER
3. Train people to create meaningful recognition moments
Many organizations assume that leaders and employees know how to show appreciation, but not everyone knows the best ways to create meaningful recognition experiences. Nearly three-fourths (70%) of employees of employees say recognition is most meaningful to them when it’s personalized,5 yet only 54% of employees say their leaders know what they do in their role.6
Because any giver is obliged to understand any recipient’s recognition preferences, it’s crucial to equip all employees with training and best practices for presenting recognition. Provide resources so employees giving recognition can find examples and tips on how to personalize it. Embed training and reminders into your recognition tools to help givers in real time. Encourage senior leaders to publicly model giving recognition in personal ways so employees can see how it should be done. Most importantly, remind givers how to connect employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another in the recognition experience.
RECOGNITION— KEY TAKEAWAYS
Research demonstrates a causal link between recognition and connection.
Integrated recognition shows employees they are valued and builds connection.
A personalized recognition approach is the most effective.
Employees respond differently to recognition and have distinct preferences.
Organizations must have flexible recognition solutions to be successful.
1. “Inclusion,” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., 2003.
2. Hindalco Case Study, O.C. Tanner, 2021.
3, Siemens Australia Case Study, O.C. Tanner, 2018.
4. AGL Case Study, O.C. Tanner, 2019.
5. 2021 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
6, 2020 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
The Causal Relationship Between Recognition and Connection
While we know that recognition has a strong positive effect on many cultural and business outcomes, the causal connection has been elusive. Isolating factors and controlling for alternative answers that explain why an employee continues to perform and achieve can be a challenge. Leaders, organizational cultures, inclusive environments, or any other number of factors can impact the results of a study.
There is, however, a gold-standard research design that can establish a causal relationship: experimentation. Experiments are most potent when they can match external stimuli that employees face in the real world. Additionally, we can control various extraneous factors that can confound the results by randomizing employees into different groups that receive various treatments.
The origin of the experimental treatment
We modeled our experiment after a story an employee shared in one of our exploratory focus groups. He described how he helped another colleague with her project late one Friday night. It was not something he needed to do, nor was he involved in her project. Yet, because they had worked together off and on the past year and she seemed to need help, he helped.
The next week, after her presentation, she recognized various people for their help, but not the member of our focus group, even though much of his work appeared in the presentation. He felt hurt, betrayed, and angry. His response when asked if he would help her in the future? “She can jump in a lake.”
We randomly assigned 6,000 employees to a control or treatment scenario. Following the treatment, we asked the employees about their connection with this colleague, whether they would help them again, and whether they would connect with them outside of work.
Using the story from our focus group, we designed several treatment scenarios for respondents:
- Control: the helper did not receive any recognition for their extra efforts
- eCard: the helper received a non-monetary eCard for their extra efforts
- Monetary eCard: the helper received a monetary eCard (with redeemable points) for their extra efforts
- Public non-monetary recognition: the helper received only public recognition for their extra efforts after the presentation
- Public monetary recognition: the helper received public recognition and redeemable points for their extra efforts
The experiment demonstrated the significant effect of recognition on each of our outcomes. There were two critical findings. First, failing to recognize a colleague led to the lowest rating of future support, colleague connection, and connection outside of work. Second, higher levels of recognition led to greater levels of future support and connection. The following table illustrates the quantitative findings.
Let’s first examine colleague connection, a self-reported measure of an employee’s connection to a coworker. The control mean was 4.74, indicating that on a scale from 1–10, employees who did not receive recognition for their help said, on average, their connection with their colleague was 4.74.
We compared each treatment mean against the control mean (4.74) to assess the treatment’s impact on each outcome. Alternatively, we reported the effect of treatment, which is the difference between the treatment mean and control mean. Each of the treatments had a statistically significant (or additive) effect on each of the outcomes. For example, an eCard recognition moment led to a 21.97% increase in the employee’s self-assessment of their connection with the colleague, a statistically significant increase. Higher levels of recognition led to even greater assessments.
This experiment has profound implications for recognition, particularly in terms of how organizations can use recognition to build strong cultures where employees can thrive.
While most organizations have, at minimum, a social recognition program that enables eCards, this type of recognition produces the lowest improvement in connection outcomes. Monetary eCards, on the other hand, have a substantial effect, particularly on the likelihood of helping the colleague again. Public recognition, a longstanding recognition best practice, leads to a significant change in each of the outcomes, improved only by adding a monetary component.
Organizations can rely on their recognition programs to create culture and business impact, particularly through the lens of connection. However, they should invest to ensure that employees can at least send monetary eCards. Instilling best practices, like public recognition, can also create significant impact, particularly when it includes a monetary element.
CASE STUDY—THE RESULTS OF INTEGRATED RECOGNITION
At Hindalco, the world’s largest aluminum rolling company, recognition is a seamless part of the culture for 25,000 employees in India. Awards honor everything from major accomplishments to performance to everyday wins.
The company’s PRAISE platform empowers leaders to recognize their people without obtaining higher approvals, showcases employee accomplishments on a social Wall of Fame, and includes a mobile app so everyone can send recognition anytime from anywhere. Additionally, February is “PRAISE Month,” featuring a full calendar of events to promote the program and encourage employees to recognize each other.
On Hindalco’s recent employee survey, engagement increased five points and scores for the prompt, “When my work is good, my contributions and accomplishments are recognized,” increased three points (now six points higher than other high-performance companies).
Says Tushar Patra, Maintenance Manager, “PRAISE has become a part of life—I check it every day.”
Mohit Kumar, Joint President of HR, Learning, and Talent, agrees: “Whatever gets recognized gets repeated. It’s a very powerful tool in shaping our teams and building the culture of our organization.”2
CASE STUDY—CUSTOMIZING RECOGNITION BY AREA AND INDIVIDUAL
Siemens Australia strives for an inclusive culture and wanted to give its people customized recognition experiences, rather than trying to motivate everyone in the same ways. So, the industrial manufacturer implemented a state-of-the-art, real-time program specific to its locations, enabling it to focus and refine recognition experiences to each area’s vision and each employee’s preferences.
Everyone can send eCards and award nominations and then present recognition in the way the recipient appreciates most.
The company’s integrated approach runs all recognition activity through the recognition platform, whether it takes the form of personalized notes, points, or presentations. And, because employees receive personalized recognition experiences, they feel seen, know how they contribute to the company, and know the company cares about them personally.3
CASE STUDY—FLEXIBLE RECOGNITION FOR A DIVERSE WORKFORCE
The workforce of AGL, one of Australia’s leading energy companies, is spread out across the country with employees who work in a spectrum of functions. The company needed a flexible recognition program that employees could easily use every day from anywhere.
The “Energize” program caters to employees in every part of the organization—retail, wholesale, group operations, call center, etc.—from any device with both monetary and non-monetary recognition, and allows recognition for individuals and teams. Even if a team has employees in different offices, they can be recognized together and appreciated for their team’s efforts.4