22 October 2019

The employee experience – Recognition

Read Time: 8 min Author: Cedric Vercauteren

When reading any respectable HR blog or publisher, you’d expect to find the words “employee experience” referenced within. And yes, guess what, most of them do, even this one.  The understanding and optimization of the employee experience journey (from onboarding to departure and beyond) is becoming a must in order to stay relevant as employer of choice. An excellent customer experience (every touchpoint of a customer with the company) is already embedded for many years as a state of mind within leading companies. Well that customer experience is what employees are looking for in their employer. They are looking for purpose, flow and fun & friendship (cfr. Heleen Mes – Gea Pepper in their book: Employee experience – happy people better businesss). We all want to be appreciated in the work we do (linking up with the purpose of the company, bringing us in the flow to achieve results and get appreciated for it). A company where colleagues appreciate one another & have a genuine interest in each other, will improve considerable the employee experience. That’s the power of recognition.

I think we all agree that the impact of disengagement on both people and organizations is significant. We see a higher level of absenteeism (37%) amongst unengaged employees, a higher turnover (25%), higher safety incidents (48%) and higher quality defects (41%).

In contradiction a higher engaged workforce shows a productivity increase (+21%) and a higher profitability (+22%). For the still sceptical readers, also other studies such as Towers Perrins Talent Survey or HBR showed the positive impact of employee engagement on the operating margin.

Personally I believe that ‘engaging people well’ is becoming one of the biggest competitive differentiators in business. Based upon my own experience as business leader and HR professional, I believe we are not so much responsible to motivate people (if only we could), but we are fully responsible to create an environment where people love to be, love to work and love to contribute. They will treat customers better, drive more innovate ideas and continuously improve your business.


1.   Recognition (continuous feedback) is key in current HR practices towards employee engagement and the employee experience. It should be part of performance management and not be looked at standalone.

2.   Recognition happens through a focus on behavior and its consequences (the ABC model), not by setting up policies, guidelines, etc. Give employees the feedback they deserve (or ask for) to grow in their roles (mastery) so they feel all the way empowered.

3.   Recognition should link directly to the results and attitudes required in the company in order to be effective. It should match the purpose of the company.

4.   Recognition can be both positive as negative, though with a clear focus on the positive side. Too many negatives will lead to non-acceptance of the positive feedback, whilst more positive feedback will result in acceptance of the negative one (4 to 1 rule).

5.   Not everyone is equipped with all tools, methodologies to give the right feedback, nor has a natural tendency to practice it, but this is where HR can play an important role to bring in these techniques for all employees and step by step build a recognizing culture.

6.   And finally, if you want to build a recognizing culture, try to make it non-monetary. The single most important way of making people feel recognized is telling them face-to-face they did a superb job by living the values or reaching the goals, not by giving them an extra bonus. Mastery & empowerment (intrinsic motivator) prevail above the carrot and the stick (being the extrinsic motivator)

The next few lines will go somewhat deeper in all of these elements. Up to you to decide if your employees feel valued & recognized for their contributions in these disruptive times.

Engagement & Recognition

In the last few decades, it became clear that engagement of people is a corner stone of increased performance & productivity. Many of today’s HR professionals are involved in engagement studies, which aim to measure the employees’ state of mind in the company and to narrow in on what these employees’ value.  However, the mistake many companies make is to use this data as a means for measuring, and increasing, productivity. Whereas the focus on employee engagement should shift the stress away from value extraction from the employees towards what the organization can do to benefit these individuals and understand how and why they work. The intention should be on how do we, as an employer,  place emphasis  on intrinsic motivation factors in order to increase the performance of the company. Specifically, what’s the employees purpose in the company, do they feel empowered in the company and can they become a master of their career (* Dan Pink, the puzzle of motivation).

A superb employee experience will surely lead to a great employee engagement, which in turn leads to increased performance and at the end better business results.

Some people believe employee engagement has to be replaced by the employee experience, but I believe they actually work together–engagement more linking to short-term initiatives and experience as the long-term cultural changes and organizational redesign.

A key driver of both employee engagement and employee experience, next to many others, is to make people feel part of the company. Specifically, how their work, their results, and attitudes contribute to the greater good of the company, and does the company value their contribution towards that goal. The valuation of the contribution towards the end result (purpose of the company), the acquisition of mastery in their jobs and the empowerment in their actions is what we commonly call recognition. I have been working on this topic quite frequently, which reason why I felt inclined to share a few words on it.

Recognition is a key element, but not by far the only element, to create engagement and a top class employee experience.

Incentive versus Recognition

Do not confuse recognition with incentives. As per Wikipedia, an incentive is something that motivates an individual to perform an action. And in many companies, this happens through a kind of monetary prize (e.g., a bonus), whilst in my view these incentives are only second layer motivators (extrinsic motivators) once a recognition/feedback culture is build. Driving intrinsic motivation (purpose, mastery, autonomy) is done through a strong recognition & feedback culture—absent any incentive culture (the carrot and the stick culture). A lot of companies tend to mix up both. If we talk about an incentive, that is typically something which is in the future (based on short term objectives which need to be attained or not after a period of time), it is uncertain, hence the fact if you obtain an incentive or not depends on the achievement of results and assessment of KPI’s. The moment you get the incentive, it is considered as a positive benefit. So do incentives really reinforce the right behaviors? The answer is yes, but without sitting alongside other reinforcers the effect can be very weak. That’s where recognition comes into play.

We don’t allow employees to run around and allocate monetary rewards to one and other (Dan Pink’s puzzle of motivation – carrot and the stick). They need another set of tools in order to motivate and inspire the rights results, attitudes and find their mastery in the role. We need to add certainty to the system. Recognition is something which we should allocate immediately, directly if we see the behavior, and give the employees a certain outcome (be it positive or negative). The fact we reinforce behavior immediately (and not in the future) and that the reinforcement follows from a result, attitude, event that took place differentiates it from an incentive. What I talk about today is the concept of recognition and not the incentive.

A culture of recognition is stimulating an engaged workforce and will increase the employee experience within the company.

recognition model

ABC MODEL – Behavior is a function of its consequences

What do we typically recognize…Behaviors! Why? Because behavior is a function of its consequences, and positive or negative reinforcement of behavior will change behavior. In its core, recognition is a way of giving continuous feedback to people, which makes them grow in their jobs, stimulates the right company culture & way of working.

People only do things, or not do things, because of what happens to them or does not happen to them….This is based on the ABC model of behavioral change (Burrhus Frederic Skinner).

ABC model

A is antecedent which is a psychological term for an activator for behavior. For example a traffic sign would be an activator reminding you to drive at 70 km/h. So for the purpose of this, we are going to use the term activator.

B stands for behavior

C is for consequence.

Genuinely speaking, because behavior is a function of its consequences, 95% of all things that people do are governed by what happens to them or does not happen to them. So let’s take an example.

As usually you have been working late and you promised to be home before 7 o’clock to be at home to help kids with homework. Your wife has been giving you a hard time because you are never at home to help. You leave the office at 6:45 and you get on the highway and whilst you see the sign for 70, you are driving 120. Why? Because you want to get home and avoid the negative reinforcement of yet another late arrival at home and the consequences –a grumpy wife, fights, etc. The fact you are ignoring the safety sign is a reflection that the consequence is going to be very negative, rather immediate, and definitely certain if you arrive home late. At that moment, you see a blue flashing light, in your rear window, what do you do? Well, most people would ease of the accelerator and slow down. Why? Well, in this case, the negative consequence of speeding fine, losing your license has become more immediate, more certain then arriving home late. The blue flashing light was merely the activator for a different behavior, but the consequence is what made you change your behavior.

You could also have this towards safety. The activator (A) says that I need to wear glasses in a factory to protect my eyes based on safety guidelines.  A positive reinforcement could mean, that an Exco member says to a plant manager. “Well, I saw the statistics on eye safety for your plant, and they look outstanding comparing to the KPI’s we set. Fantastic job so keep up the good work!” This is a positive reinforcement, which will make the plant manager do more of the same, and even excel in that area. But there could also be a negative reinforcement…an Exco member could say to a plant manager “I saw your statistics on eye safety and there are real issues at the plant, as we have more accidents as anticipated. What are you doing about this?” This is a negative reinforcement of a superior asking for the next steps, making the plant manager think about moving forward in that area. A second time, he will see the Exco member, he has hopefully thought about actions to achieve the safety KPI, so he could show a better story. If not, the message of the Exco member could get stronger or lead to sanctions, so the consequence attached to not having the KPI met gets more immediate and certain.

Basically the A’s are all policies, info sessions, posters, procedures that do exist and tell us how to behave…This is though a critical element but will only give you 5% of the behavior you require. Are a lot of companies not focusing too much on these 5%? What we need to do is focus on the 95% consequences (C) of behavior (both positive and negative). So reinforcement will come into play on the 95% other behavior we do want to see in our company (based on the rules & policies).

Where can we compare it easily with? This is exactly the way as we bring up our children. We reinforce the right behavior and we try to correct the wrong behavior when we observe it. Business results are the outcome of many behaviors and so if we pinpoint the results & attitudes we require we can reinforce the ways these results are achieved, which brings you back to measurement, i.e. increase of performance & business results.

Part of performance management

There are many ways to build a recognizing feedback culture in your company, and even more and more supported by new HRtech solutions. However regardless of the approach, the core of my message is that continuous feedback (positive and negative) is something we cannot neglect. Surely many of you are already applying it. HR and business leaders should think about this as being part of performance management and not as a standalone item. Make it part of your culture, and avoid too many written rules or policies. Focus will be to change the behavior of people and make them good at giving feedback. The new ways of agile working, the transformational changes that companies and employees are going through, the disruptive technologies employees long for should create the opportunities to give a great deal of immediate (recognizing) feedback towards the employees. Even more than in the past, a continuous focus on recognition (or feedback) is critical to increase the employee experience & engagement of our employees. They will need to feel empowered to do the right thing, building up their mastery in line with the clear purpose of the company.

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