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The Reason Your Recognition Program Fizzled Out

yellow and blueThe intent of a reward and recognition (R&R) program is to drive a positive, productive culture and increase employee engagement. The challenge for the vast majority of these programs is maintaining focus on the employees themselves. It’s a measure of our ability to see beyond revenue, performance, and ROI. Heck, it’s also a measure of our ability to see past Glassdoor reviews and being an “employer of choice.”

Often our recognition efforts can leave behind the very people we are trying to serve.

Appreciation, inclusion, collaboration and growth - these are the attributes that attract top talent. These attributes keep your current employees engaged and create outstanding experiences. When done well, they can have a tremendous impact on employee loyalty.

The challenge? Most organizations are missing the mark. A recent report from employee engagement data giant Gallup states that only 36% of employees believe their organization has some sort of recognition system in place.

We can do better. But what does success look like?

Program versus Culture

Programs are not bad per se, but they do tend to only look at the 1’s and 0’s. Do this, get that. Culture is so much bigger. Luke Jamieson’s definition of culture is simply “a set of behaviors repeated.” Authentic recognition, especially between peers, is a foundational element of great organizational culture.

A program does not see the human in the equation, only the output. A culture sees the person, what they do and who they are. This transcends recognition and enters the realm of appreciation. There is a well-documented “epidemic of loneliness” that has taken hold of populations worldwide. When done well, recognition can give the gift of identity and community. These are not gifts any employee would give up easily.

Sadly, few R&R programs come close to this type of thinking. Many will become stuck in providing non-meaningful and “gimmick” rewards to employees.

Both the authors of this post are both huge fans of the TV series Severance. You may remember the infamous finger trap, a gimmick reward that is earned by completing a set of menial tasks. Naturally, the company tries to build it up like it’s some type of tremendous honor, inflating its value. Most of us can empathize so deeply with the baffled employee - “I did all that work for this?!”

Jamieson recounted the many different times early in his leadership journey when he tried to incentivize staff with tangible items, expecting big results only to be disappointed. Non-meaningful and gimmick rewards can actually have a negative impact on employee motivation, job satisfaction, and overall performance. This is why it's important for companies to provide rewards that are meaningful and that demonstrate a genuine appreciation for their employee's hard work and contributions.

In Nate Brown’s experience, a program that stands on a leg of gift cards and points to an e-store with a bunch of strange stuff as the primary incentive is unlikely to have much long-term impact. The coin machine is only interesting when coins are coming out. And even then, those coins lose their value awfully fast.

Contrast this with an authentic and organic word from a peer. As Jamieson puts it, “Extrinsic is often loud and quick, but intrinsic is quiet and long-lasting.”

The truth is there is no “one size fits all” approach to R&R programs. Another, perhaps “harder” truth is that R&R is one of the most important ways we can reinforce our desired culture. Those employees who are actively demonstrating those behaviors should be the primary beneficiaries of R&R. Those who are not should not. While it may sound cruel, we want people to be able to feel and understand the difference between their behaviors and the core values shared by the business.

Put simply, someone who is a great culture fit should know this and be celebrated for it. Those who are not should know it, too. This is how distinctive and meaningful cultures are built.

Attributes of Successful Reward and Recognition Programs

Make It Personal

We are all motivated by different things. Some may love the thrill of competition and the achievement of reaching a milestone before anyone else. For most, it will simply be about reaching that milestone.

For others, they will be motivated by having the freedom to be creative, by being able to be social, or by having the opportunity to learn and develop their skills. Understanding the different ways your employees are motivated and then using that as a blueprint in the design of any R&R program is the first step in making it relevant and personally meaningful.


The absolute best programs are driven by authentic peer-to-peer interactions. To quote from Cooleaf, an employee recognition platform, “Peer recognition is a top factor that pushes employees to go the extra mile. When peers recognize each other’s contributions, it strengthens their relationship and builds trust. Employees feel more connected to the team, making collaboration more effective.”


Jamieson can’t remember any extrinsic rewards other than a 5-year anniversary watch with a personal message of recognition engraved on the back of it. It was meaningful, and he was able to wear it every day as a reminder. However, most tangible gifts of recognition tend to be forgotten quickly. Instead think of recognition that is continuous - intrinsic motivators like praise, opportunities, and unique experiences.


Too often, R&R is left on the shoulders of middle management to administer. This can often lead to delays, which breaks the association between a behavior and a recognition. Finding ways to share the responsibility or even having a dedicated manager over the program will ensure proper correlation. This is so important for building those positive repeated behaviors that make up culture.


Like so many things, a meaningful R&R program will be an extension of a clear mission and values. Rewards and recognition have the distinctive honor of reinforcing those values, helping to shape behaviors, decisions, and mentalities across the organization.

Many businesses claim to care about their employees. However, those that give this more than lip service prioritize the well-being of their employees, providing a range of benefits and resources to support physical, mental, and emotional health. They have a collaborative work environment in which employees work together, share ideas, and learn from each other. You see a common but genuine commitment to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected.

Oh yeah, and they’ve got a great R&R program to fortify it all.