Getting Started with Employee Recognition

bob's Blog Dr. Bob Nelson

With all the ideas I have in my book, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, people often ask me what is the best way to get started with recognition activities where they work.  Here are some guidelines that I have found useful in working with individuals and companies to increase employee recognition efforts where they work.

Start in your immediate sphere of influence.  Motivation is a very personal topic and to be successful with it you need to operate at a very immediate, personal, one-on-one level.  One of the great things about this topic is you don't need anyone's permission to start using the principles involved.  You can immediately recognize, praise, and encourage those you work with—and just as fast start to have an impact in your workplace.  The most highly valued motivators reported by employees tend to come from their immediate managers and others they work with closely.  A simple praising, gestures of thanks, public acknowledgments of achievement, celebrations of success -- these are the high-leverage actions to get recognition going in your workplace.

Involve those individuals you are trying to motivate.  Bring up the topic of recognition and ask the question: "Does anyone think we need to do more recognition around here?"  I've never heard of any employee saying "I just get too much recognition where I work," so this is almost a rhetorical question.  Take the initial interest you receive in having more recognition at work and ask if anyone in the group would like to   help make recognition a more prominent part of your group’s activities.  Some of the best recognition efforts are driven by volunteers!  From the outset, the recognition initiative can be their program, not management's program that is being imposed on them.  Remember, the best management is what you do with people, not what you do to them.  Make employees partners in their own success: involvement equals commitment!

Ask employees what motivates them.  Whether you have them jot down items on an index card on their first day of work or circulate a copy of 1001 Rewards and have staff members initial items they would find motivating, start with employee preferences for recognition.  What motivates us, motivates us, and that differs from person to person and for the same person over time.  Make time to spend with each employee, finding out where they want to go with their career, skills they’d like to develop, hobbies they have and their family situation.  All of this information is fodder for motivation.  By helping employees reach their goals you can unleash an excitement and commitment for them to want to do their absolute best to help you and the organization succeed.

Focus on what you can do, not what you can't do.  In almost every work environment there are constraints that can keep you from recognizing employees.  For example, many organizations are unionized, which can restrict some forms of recognition; public organizations must be careful how they use public funds for recognition; nonprofits and smaller companies may not think they have adequate financial resources to devote to employee recognition, and larger companies may have formal recognition programs that have become stale and boring.  Instead of dwelling on what you can't do, focus on the hundreds of things you can.  I often recommend that organizations start with the performance and behaviors they want to drive using the principles of effective recognition.  Recognition is more a matter of doing those things that most motivate employees, not just the size of the recognition budget.  Having the conceptual framework and skills to creatively recognize employees on an ongoing basis is the place to start.  If you start on driving specific performance and behaviors that impact the organization’s success, your success will have a positive impact on the budget and allow you to invest more as you demonstrate results.  Recognition then becomes an “investment in people” rather than just an “employee cost.”

Don't expect to do recognition perfectly.  I find some managers and companies attempt recognition activities, then abandon their efforts because they didn't have instant success.  Instead, you need to take a long-term view of the topic and remember that any new behavior or change will be awkward at first.  There is no single right way of doing recognition.  Instead, try various things, learn from those efforts, and seek to improve.  Have fun in the process and you will seldom go wrong!

—Bob Nelson

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