Employee recognition is widely hailed as a powerful tool to engage workers in the mission of any organization.

Employee recognition is a powerful tool to engage workers. Yet all too often recognition initiatives fail. One of the key reasons this happens is because employers tend to look at the process of creating a recognition program as a logical transaction — a "campaign" intended to keep turnover numbers down rather than a true holistic effort to value employee contributions.

While there is a strategic element that can and should be tied into organizational culture and values, creating a true culture of employee recognition is the only way to ensure long-term success. And changing culture isn't as simple as turning on a system or kicking off a process — it requires careful, deliberate planning.

Creating a culture of recognition is something any firm can do to improve the employee experience, whether it has 10 employees or 10,000. The formula for success is identifying the key business objective along with the associated behaviors that roll up into that objective and then finding ways to recognize those behaviors consistently over time.

Recognition can support culture change by making it tangible and personal. Two key considerations for using recognition as an influencer of culture come to us in examples from two world-class CEOs — the power of reinforcement and the value of visual representations.

Using Recognition to Reinforce Behaviors

Behavior change is challenging, but recognition and appreciation help to shift behaviors in a nonthreatening way. If an employee exhibits the right behavior, make sure they and their peers know about it so that everyone can model the right behavior. Alan Mulally, former Chief Executive Officer of Ford Motor Company, used this approach to guide his executives in the turnaround of the firm. As Optimity Advisors writes, Mulally would highlight members of the leadership team with the courage to bring forth issues that needed resolution instead of trying to cover them up.

Leveraging Physical Symbols of Recognition Moments

David Novak, former CEO of Yum! Brands (parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut), was known for more than just thanking his employees for a job well done. He would give them something special to remember the experience and cement it into their thinking. As explained in Forbes, when Novak recognized the efforts of an employee from the KFC brand, that individual would receive a rubber chicken to commemorate the experience. Workers at Pizza Hut locations would receive a cheese head hat for their good work. Those workers not only received appreciation for their efforts — they had something fun and tangible to show for it to memorialize the occasion.

Using Cash and Cards for Immediate Impact

One of the easiest ways to offer recognition is to use gift cards or cash to thank employees for outstanding work or actions. When someone exhibits one of the company's values, the employee's boss can offer a small reward to cement the "thank you" for a job well done. In considering using gift cards or cash, it's important to remember two things: the value of the cards or cash are taxable as income by the IRS, and money has been shown to have only minimal motivational power when offered alone.

That's why the recognition aspects are so important to this equation: without them, you'll have yet another "flavor of the day" HR program with minimal impact on the workers and the business. By making the focus on recognition first and reward second, you can boost employee performance and motivation while minimizing any negative side effects.

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Tags: Employment Growth Employment Trends Employee Engagement