It's time to reboot how we think about employee recognition. Times have changed, but our thinking hasn't. There is little argument over the connection between an employee's engagement and the degree to which they feel valued and appreciated for their contributions.

Recognition for Length of Service

It's not surprising that nearly 90 percent of organizations have some sort of formal recognition program in place, according to WorldatWork. What is surprising, is that 89 percent of those recognition programs are to acknowledge employees for their length of service. Showing love to our most tenured employees is never a bad thing, but it's important to also recognize everyone along the way.

Our youngest and largest employee segment — the millennials — crave feedback early and often, as PricewaterhouseCoopers notes. They aren't going to be patient enough to wait a year (let alone five) for some recognition. Recognition is feedback.

Going Beyond Regular Recognition

Here's another issue with recognition: We've been programmed to believe that the only people who deserve recognition are those who significantly exceed expectations. In fact, according to WorldatWork, the second most common type of recognition program is for "above and beyond performance."

Again, there's nothing wrong with recognizing top performers. But, let's assume that includes about 20 percent of your employees. This means the other 80 percent may receive limited or no recognition throughout the year.

Most of your employees, by definition, will be average performers. They come to work, do their job well and perform up to expectations. And, they may be working very hard to do so. The organization cannot survive without all of these "average" performers. Shouldn't they be recognized for something beyond just sticking around long enough to get a "length of service" desk plaque?

We must reframe how we think about recognition. Start with these steps.

1. Treat Recognition as Positive Feedback, Not a Separate Program

Positive feedback can come in many forms. It can be as simple as an expression of gratitude, such as a genuine "thank you." It can also be appreciation for the little (and big) things employees contribute every day. When recognition is seen as positive feedback, it can happen more frequently. And as a bonus, it makes feedback less awful.

2. Use Appreciation Lists

An appreciation list is simply a written list of things you appreciate about another person. Managers and employees can use these in one-on-one meetings to ensure a more positive tone. But you can also use them for team building. I once asked my team to write an appreciation list for each member of our team in preparation for a retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, we took turns reading our lists to each other. It had an immediate positive impact on the team. In fact, one team member was moved to tears. It's a quick and easy tool that can have tremendous impact.

3. Make Recognition (Positive Feedback) Part of How You Do Things

We created formal recognition programs because we realized we were failing at providing enough positive feedback. If we make recognition part of how we do things, the need for these programs fades. For example, I know of several teams who open their meetings by going around the room and providing thanks and feedback to those who deserve it. It can also become part of your process when a project wraps up or a deal closes. Take time in debriefs to ask, "Who played a role in this work and should be given some positive feedback and appreciation?"

Every human being craves validation and acknowledgment. We need to know that we matter, even when we aren't being exceptional. We are naturally motivated to seek out that attention. Behavior feeds on appreciation. Pay close attention to ensuring the valuable behaviors of your employees are well-fed (even when not "above and beyond") or they may die of starvation.

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Tags: performance management Employment Trends Employee Engagement