Recognition Programs: Keep It Real

Felicity Hinton
Achievement Awards Group

Editor’s Note: Authenticity is a hot item, in part because employees believe it improves the workplace. In this article, we explore the role of behavioral design in leveraging authentic recognition. 

Related: I really appreciate the time that our readers have given to this website. I want to recognize that, and I want everyone to know what you mean to us. If it weren’t for you, (insert name here), we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, reach who we reach and continue the conversations we’ve begun. Seriously, (insert name here), I’m sure you and (insert name of domestic partner, pet and/or favorite sports team) would agree that you’re the reason we’ve created something so special and so unique. Give my best to (insert name of child, business partner or cable provider) and read on.


Neuroscience has made it clear that the benefits of employee recognition are good for business: higher levels of motivation and engagement, which correlate to higher rates of productivity, retention and profitability. Almost everyone agrees that recognition is a proven performance enhancer. (Editor’s note: See also, You Better Recognize).

But what neuroscience also does, by casting light on the psychological and neurobiological effects of recognition, is highlight the extraordinary human experience of recognition.

When we recognize another person authentically, we take the time to see them – really see them – and give thanks for them.


Recognition makes us feel valued. And when we feel valued, we care more.

In South Africa, the act of gratitude takes on a still deeper meaning, grounded as it is in the African concept of Ubuntu. In Zulu, there is a phrase, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which in its literal translation means that a person is a person through other people – ‘”I am because you are.”

What Ubuntu emphasizes is the life-affirming connection we share with one another in our co-created humanity. No one explains it more eloquently than African cultural historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze:

“The idealism (of Ubuntu) suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other.”

Within this essentially humanist context, it’s easy to see why recognition tops the list of positive workplace experiences.

Authentic recognition builds trust

Jump now to your typical office scenario. It’s Monday. Your inbox is groaning. You’re two meetings down and still no closer to eating that egg sandwich you got at the canteen on the way to the presentation on predictive analytics, which was mind-blowing, BTW. But no time for eggies now, because you’ve got to get Marketing to give their final review of the new social media campaign, which goes live in (fingers crossed) half an hour.

It’s a fact: Work keeps us busy. But being busy is why we routinely fall back on recognition that is fast, automatic and, all too often, inauthentic.


Being busy is why we routinely fall back on recognition that is fast, automatic and, all too often, inauthentic.

The last few years has seen a proliferation of employee recognition software. Make no mistake, these new-generation recognition platforms have several great advantages, especially in terms of scalability and speed. But the danger with platform-based recognition is that, in being automatic and systematic, recognition runs the risk of becoming bureaucratic. This is especially true in large-scale, hierarchical organizations, which are prone to what business thought leader Gary Hamel calls “bureausclerosis.”

For Hamel, it’s a scourge. He says: “They (bureaucracies) lack nobility. How often in our organizations do we hear of love, beauty, truth, courage, freedom and justice? Bureaucracies are emotional dead zones.”

At the start of this article, I wrote that neuroscience highlights the human experience of recognition. Increasingly, neuroscience is showing us how powerfully recognition functions as an emotional experience.


Neuroscience is showing us how powerfully recognition functions as an emotional experience.

Recognition makes us feel valued. And when we feel valued, we care more. It shows in the work we produce, and in the relationships we foster with colleagues, customers, clients and suppliers.

Underpinning this feeling of being valued is trust. For neuroscientist Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and author of the book, Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performing Companies, “Trust requires viewing those with whom one works as whole and complete human beings, not as pieces of human capital.”

In an HBR article, Zak unpacks eight strategies for creating a culture of trust, the first of which (unsurprisingly) is recognition. His advice is simple: “The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal and public.”

I think the word “authentic” can read as a synonym for “personal” in the sentence above. Because authentic recognition is personal. And it garners trust.

Underpinning this feeling of being valued, is trust.

Zak’s research proves just how much trust matters. Using a national data set he collected as part of his research, he showed that if an organization moves up one quartile in organizational trust, the average employee would produce an additional $10,000 in revenue every year.

So, it pays to build trust and authenticity in organizations.

This point is important for recognition platform designers: while decision architecture should drive regular and timely recognition that supports the organization’s values and goals, it should also encourage authentic recognition.

Authentic recognition delivers results

We recently ran a recognition program for a client looking to create a culture of unity, while aligning employees with the company’s strategic goals and objectives.

Taking our advice, the CEO of this company became a regular user of our recognition platform. He diligently set aside time every day to recognize and appreciate his employees – from simple messages of thanks to more formal messages, linked to rewards. In every message, the sincerity of his gratitude was apparent.

Within weeks, we started seeing some remarkable results. While the CEO maintained a regular output of recognition, he also started to receive recognition. In spades.

Soon, following the example set by the CEO, managers and team leaders were using the platform to recognize (and where appropriate, reward) team members. And peer-to-peer recognition? It spiked too.

Much has been said of the so-called “ripple effect” of recognition. But to actually see the effect in a live analytics environment is exhilarating. Gratitude literally flows up, down and across the organization.


Gratitude literally flows up, down and across the organization.

When we met with the CEO about the results, he was delighted and described what he called “a newfound culture of cooperation, collaboration and innovation.”

So, what does all of this come down to?

Well, built into the UI of our recognition platform, in the field where a user types a message of thanks, is a three-word prompt. A subtle nudge toward authentic, human-centered recognition …

Keep It Real.


Felicity Hinton
Achievement Awards Group


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