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Recognition is Not Fluffy Stuff: Why Acknowledging Your People is Good for Business

September 25, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: CPHR Manitoba

As featured in the Fall 2017 issue of HRmatters


Authored by: Sarah McVanel, Recognition and Organizational Culture Expert, a dynamic speaker and coach.

See Sarah’s keynote at the HR & Leadership Conference on October 31. Click here to register!

Reader, be warned. some of the statistics in this article are not uplifting. But you’ll want to hear them. In fact, you need to hear them. The good news is that there are things we can do to change the negative forecast of those stats.


Let’s start by agreeing to one thing: the fact that only thirty percent of the Canadian workforce is satisfied is unacceptable. We can do better than that!


But where do we start?

For the most part, Canadian businesses are spending money on training. Many pay a competitive wage. We have more “great employer” awards than ever before. Several industries (e.g., healthcare) are even mandated now by legislation to conduct regular engagement surveys.


So why are so many Canadians still dissatisfied? This, coming from a nation known for saying “sorry,” when someone bumps into us?


Well, one key reason is as plain as the nose on our face. People don’t feel valued.


My co-author, Brenda Zalter-Minden, and I worked with Canadian survey company Metrics@Work to analyze their database of almost a quarter million staff engagement surveys from hundreds of companies. We were all curious whether engagement survey data could truly point us to what ailed workers and middle managers. Recognition is a tool that’s in everyone’s toolkit, is often free, and requires no special training. Yet, the results of recognition in these surveys were disheartening to say the least. Hum.


The data shows that recognition was the lowest of the 25 most commonly examined factors in depth related to engagement. How disturbing is it that not all of the organizations even considered it a factor at all? When talent is today’s greatest source of competitive advantage, and that asset walks out the door every night with no guarantee that they will return in the morning, no business can afford to sustain this. We’re in a talent shortage that shows no signs of easing until 2030 (Deloitte 2020); we are living in the paradox that, despite unemployment numbers in many provinces, many organizations are still unable to attract and retain technical and skilled talent impacting productivity, innovation and revenue targets. The key word here is some – other organizations are adapting to talent shortages and maintaining success.


Keeping Top Talent at the Top of their Game


Employers, take note. Your talent has a lot to say about how well you are recognizing them and the impact it’s having. In the extensive analysis of this database, we learned that the highest average recognition score of an organization was 80% satisfied and the lowest 29%. That is a huge range, wouldn’t you agree? Imagine how much more those top rated organizations are getting from their talent than those with extremely dissatisfied staff! Have you gone above and beyond for a boss or employer who didn’t value you? If you did, good chance you didn’t make a habit of it or your efforts petered off over time. Not because you’re unmotivated! It’s basic human behaviour: we will spend our discretionary time, energy and attention where it’s most needed and valued.


Of all the variables that are commonly studied in employee engagement surveys, rewards and recognition was the 4th most correlated within the database, behind trust in the organization, satisfaction with senior leadership and continuous quality improvement. In fact, all of these variables correlate with each other, so one could argue that a more tangible focus on recognition would be an effective way to increase trust as well as satisfaction with senior leadership. For those who work in continuous improvement cultures, you know that employees’ ideas and solutions form the basis of the improvements every day; these gains must be acted upon and celebrated to encourage a culture that values solution finding. Organizations that do not foster recognition at all levels are missing an opportunity that’s so close they can practically taste it – and it will boost engagement contributing to healthier employees, and a healthier bottom line.


Retaining Top Talent


If this doesn't seem like sufficient evidence for the business case (let alone the human case) for recognition, here’s something to consider. Think about what type of company you would want to work for. Employees are 25% more likely to remain in the organization when they are recognized; it would stand to reason that employees stay in their department, working for their direct supervisor when they feel what they have to offer is valued and needed. There are many factors that contribute to someone deciding to leave the organization, although not everyone has the luxury of doing so; if someone says, enter stage left…presenteeism! If your team or organization has folks “on the job retired” or experiencing significant turnover, isn’t is worth considering (perhaps even asking in exit interviews, or better yet “stay” interviews) how recognition in their work areas and as an organization-at-large could play a role in rectifying issues.

We can’t help wondering, why is recognition not part of the broader discourse of business, like work-life balance is? Let’s hope it’s not because we’re still convinced that recognition is just “fluffy stuff”. Quite the contrary. It’s part of any total rewards strategy; when companies, industries or provinces are in tough times, it might become the way to differentiate yourself and thrive while others struggle.


Workplaces Staying at the Top of their Game


There is a common thread in the stories of the top-rated companies in Canada, such as Bayer, CN, Nature Path Foods, and CIBC to name a few (according to the Financial Post’s Top Companies to work for…but there are lots of other “best places to work” organizations). They’re not always the largest or most famous of company in their industry, but that they have a strong focus on recognizing and leveraging the best in their people. Sure, we have heard some of the names on the top US list, like Google and Microsoft, however many smaller players are on the scene making a big splash by how they treat their people. Organizations don’t need to be huge to make major in-roads in cultivating healthy organizational culture. The gains are not just notoriety, but getting the best from talent which also translates into healthy bottom lines.


We see some major differences in organizational characteristics associated with highest satisfaction with recognition. Employees who were the most satisfied with how well they were recognized report they are:

      Engaged in their job overall

      Engaged with the broader organization

      Involved with and participate in decision-making

      Satisfied with senior leaders

      Trustful of the organization

      Continually seeking to improve how work is done (as is their whole team)

      Innovative (as is their whole team)

      Satisfied with communication

      Regularly receiving performance feedback and performance is managed well

      Satisfied with opportunities for advancement

      Likely to stay with the organization


Can you confidently say this about your workforce and your organization? If not, I hope you are keen to start speaking with employees about what they most need. You need to know what being valued looks like to them and how they most want to be recognized and rewarded.


Creating Retention Cultures through Recognition

According to our analysis that we write about in our book Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness: Solution Focused Strategies for Satisfied Staff, High Performing Teams and Healthy Bottom Lines, the top three ways employees say they want to be recognized are through a verbal thank-you (89%), private praise (84%), or written thank-you (82%). Other ways such as gifts, bonuses and other incentive programs do show up in the data, but they are not as high on the list and for many individuals, have a limited impact. Yet many organizations I consult with and train, incentive programs are the system of recognition. What we measure matters. If you’re only measuring targets and outcomes, you’re missing a big part of what gets people out of bed and into your organization in the morning. And what do you do when you cannot afford to give the incentives or inability to meet targets is out of the control of employees? What now? Perhaps more importantly, what does this say about your culture? Your culture and doing meaningful work is more likely to attract top talent than your monetary incentives (or if you get them there they won’t stay if they’re not valued or respected).


If your recognition program is resting on only a small segment of your total rewards framework, your house of cards may fall at a time when you need your talent to help you through difficult financial times; when value is monetized by something that is outside of your control, you’re on shaky ground. This is what I’m seeing with clients and when I speak with professionals at keynotes in our Western provinces; organizations are communicating the message “you’re lucky to have a job”, not “in this downturn help us get better, savvy, most innovative…we need you to survive and come out the other side better.” Companies that don’t value their talent in bad times won’t keep them in good times…when business is booming and you need them most.


The Time is Now …3 Ways to Leverage the Exponential Power of Recognition Today


The bottom-line: Make a conscious effort to find a balance of both interpersonal and extrinsic recognition that fits for your culture and industry, and pair it with a solid understanding of each individual who reports to you. This is the sweet spot of retaining your top talent.

Furthermore, it’s what every member can contribute – whether they are staff, middle management or a senior leader – that makes a significant difference. The three basic recognition fundamentals within everyone’s control and budget are a verbal or written thank-you and personal private words of praise. Something as simple as these goes back toward communicating that your people are your most valued asset – in good times and bad. And if you don’t think this is what will do it in your industry or company, what will? Then do that. Today. Before you start bleeding talent…and their discretionary effort.


1.     Just Start

So what can you do when you don’t work for one of the top ranked companies? When you can’t give incentives? When you don’t share an office to see each other to recognize personally? When you have a huge span of control? When you work for a company that “does get it” (yet)? Start by recognizing those around you in whatever medium is accessible to you – social media, a note, an email, a LinkedIn testimonial, tell their boss something great about them, buy them a coffee (or dinner…you pick the budget), send their family dinner when they work late. When it’s unexpected or a surprise (but not an embarrassing one), even better!


2.     Ask

Ask people how they want to be recognized. For example, I have a tool you can give out to your people to ask them (download it at Use what you learn from it to say thanks in the methods they most value – the platinum rule – as often as possible. To that end, tell others how you most want to be shown how valued you are. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re responsible for corporate recognition (and let’s hope that’s not been delegated to you…that others know they need to do the recognizing you even if you oversee the strategy), really evaluate if recognition is getting you the retention, continuous improvement, trust and satisfaction you’d expect to see. If it’s not, time to revisit your strategy. Investing in a needs assessment will pay off in dividends.


3.     Focus on What’s Working

If nothing else, focus on this: do more of what is already working. Where is recognition happening already? Where is recognition part of daily discourse? Where could we experiment with different recognition strategies and settings? Even when you have no money, virtually no time, and no formal program, you can always start a conversation or meeting acknowledging what’s working and seeking to learn from others their opinions about what is.


4.     Be in Community

Share what you do and what you’re trialing internally, and also externally to stay on top of leading practices! Tweet to the hashtag #FROG and #recognition so we can share and learn from each other! Believe me, all the effort you put into meaningful recognition will come back to you in spades. Ask any of my clients. How can you possibly regret doing the right thing backed by solid business evidence?


Sarah McVanel helps leaders leverage the power of recognition to retain top talent and sustain healthy bottom line results. She speaks nationally, leads workshops, coaches leaders, and conducts organizational recognition program reviews. She is a Certified Senior Organizational Development Professional (CSODP), Professional Certified Coach (PCC), Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL), and member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS). She has a BA in Psychology, Masters in Family Relations and Diplomas in Human Resources and Healthcare Administration. She has over 15 years’ experience including at a senior leadership level and now owns boutique consulting firm, “Greatness Magnified.” She is an author of peer-reviewed journals, articles, and two books, “Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness: Solution Focused Strategies for Satisfied Staff, High Performing Teams and Healthy Bottom Lines” (2015) and “The FROG Effect: Tools and Strategies to Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness” (2016).  

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