Building a Great Workplace Culture with Employee Recognition Programs

Sep 30, 2020

Building a Great Workplace Culture with Employee Recognition Programs

Employee Recognition Programs are leading the way

Gym memberships, unlimited vacation, chef-cooked meals, a gourmet snack bar, free beer on Fridays, video games in the employee lounge — the list goes on. These are just some of the ‘perks’ new companies, startups with a ‘supportive workplace culture’, and highly profitable behemoths like Google and Apple purport to offer employees.
But ‘perks’ are not akin to employee recognition programs. Rather, they’re a nice complement and a great attractor for and an effective method of culling and mollifying the ‘top talent’. These offers are for every employee, across the board, and contributes, in an impactful way, to enhancing overall workplace culture.
Employee recognition programs, however, work on a slightly different psychology than perks and benefits. And building a strategic program can help round out a great workplace culture from all sides.

The psychology behind ‘Rewards’

Offering individuals a ‘reward’, either to incentivise or motivate someone towards the achievement of an end result is a tactic that goes back to childhood and touches on a deeply rooted human need to ‘belong’.
Sherri Hartzell, professor at the University of Phoenix Online, explains that there are two types of rewards: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. While the former is based on external rewards that are set up to automate and reward certain end results, intrinsic motivation is much more powerful because it is internally powered.
Intrinsic motivation may be based on accomplishments or rewards that are important to the individual themselves and produce an internal sense of satisfaction.
But, what’s even more interesting is that, in the achievement of these accomplishments or goals, intrinsic motivation helps to build powerful habits that can then be carried over to other aspects of life.
These include time management, organisation, focus, self-discipline, consistency, and willpower, among other important traits.
The leading theorist of workplace motivation, Frederick Herzberg, rounds out this fact of human nature with his ‘Two-Factor‘ theory. In the context of work, there are certain factors that cause satisfaction and it’s not a reduction of these factors that cause dissatisfaction, necessarily, but, rather, the presence of an entirely different set of factors.
So, according to Herzberg, a workplace culture that uses a recognition program must focus on providing two things through the interaction between the program and the wider organisational values:
- Job satisfaction provided through the nature of work itself, concerned with delivering feelings like room for growth and gaining status, assuming greater responsibility and self-expression or self-realisation - Reducing dissatisfaction through policies, procedures, supervision and/or working conditions
When it comes to employee recognition programs, there are two very important things to bear in mind.
- Incentives create motivation and focus on ‘what’ or end results - Recognitions reward behaviours and focus on the ‘how’ These are often confused and otherwise well-intentioned recognition programs end up de-motivating and pitting employees against each other instead

Motivating, managing and Rewarding performance

When it comes to nurturing a team of highly motivated staff, it’s not a one-size-fits-all sort of dynamic here. And there are limits as to what various motivators can extract out of people before hitting a certain ceiling.
Motivators that improve performance in a sustained way can be:
- Autonomy - Status, power, and affiliation - Responsibility over a small team of peers (such as a team lead title) - Recognition of employees’ performance tied to financial perks - Rewards tied to completing a task in a particular way, according to a particular time or standard (a method of ‘workplace gamification‘)
To form the structure of an employee rewards program that is actually sensitive and responsive to the desires and needs of employees, businesses should:
- Ask employees what kinds of ‘rewards’ they would consider motivating and worthy or aspirational. - Focus on, at the same time, providing work that challenges and is interesting. - Give opportunities for advancement — these don’t always have to be vertical but can be a horizontal move where employees are building a new set of skills or knowledge base on a similar project. - Informal recognition and small tokens of gratitude matter enormously. Take the time to send a card, treat them out to lunch, send something personal and express gratitude with a small gift. - Demonstrate emotional intelligence: don’t publicly announce recognition, for example, if that makes an employee uncomfortable. Not all employees want that, so make sure to get to know each one’s personalities and needs.

Setting up an Employee Recognition Program, step-by-step

To put into place a robust employee recognition and rewards program, here’s what businesses need to get started. These are rough stages that may or may not apply to an organisation, so take what applies and leave the rest.
1. Identify the goals of your program: speak to management level and then employee level to narrow down one or two long-term goals you want to achieve by putting this program in place. For example, do you want greater productivity, creativity or trust-building? Each of these is a worthy goal in itself that offers the chance to get creative with ‘incentives’ or ‘rewards’ for your program. 2. You need a budget: even programs that don’t offer financial remuneration or rewards as their upfront ‘reward’ to employees require money from the business’s side to run. Decide on what you’ll be allocating each year to run this program
- Begin with the details: what can you allocate per employee, per year? Will this remain constant? At what point might you consider increasing it? - Now, focus on what this translates to: in terms of available rewards and work perks, what will this dollar amount “buy”? What is it commensurate with, in terms of value?
3. Delegate to a committee: this really depends on the size and structure of an organization as well as workload. To ‘outsource’ the oversight of the reward’s set up and ongoing operations to a small committee, make sure it’s equally populated with employees as managerial staff. 4. Decide on criteria: Assigning rewards and determining who ‘earns’ a recognition can be based on measurable factors like
- excellence in performance over a certain number of terms - feedback on peer-to-peer support and communication - points earned on a point system - collective team accomplishments on a project - milestones - consecutively positive performance reviews
5. Select the rewards and communicate with employees: This goes back to the management of performance. Remember that it’s more powerful to, firstly, reward behaviours as much as possible, over results, and, secondly, to tailor rewards to what an individual says they care about rather than some arbitrary ‘carrot-or-stick’ program
Speaking of the carrot-and-stick routine, there’s one very important thing to keep in mind when building a successful employee recognition program that will promote a thriving workplace culture.
At no time can the program devolve into a ‘me-versus-them’ contest. Friendly competition between colleagues is just fine but rewards should not work to single people out while demotivating others.
Remember, the factors for job satisfaction are completely different than those for dissatisfaction. Make sure any employee rewards program smartly balances both.
To do so, consider running a ‘pilot’ or a ‘beta’ program that runs for a certain length of time, actively collects data and feedback and then makes changes so that the program actually reflects the desires of employees.
That is ultimately what makes a great workplace culture: a space and set of relationships that mirror the best values and most-desired behaviours of unique employees in a company.
Get in touch with our team of specialists today to find out how you can achieve your organisational goals with an engaging Employee Recognition Program.

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