The under-appreciated value of recognition

by 12 Aug 2010

“Recognition is deceptively complex and difficult,” says Leigh Branham, author of Re-Engage. “Many managers simply don’t know how to do it.” This view may come as a surprise; a word of praise from a manager seems the simplest thing in the world. Yet HR managers up to their neck in compensation plans and incentive programs may be missing the boat in not directing some attention to the underappreciated value of recognition.

Recognition versus Incentives

There are three related areas that we should be clear about when we think about recognition:

1. Recognition programs

2. Incentive programs

3. Informal recognition

Classic recognition programs include things like a gold watch for long service or a plaque for being employee of the month. Classic incentive programs give employees cash or prizes for certain results such as completing a wellness course or selling the most of a certain product. There are two important differences between recognition and incentive programs. Recognition programs emphasise the symbolic nature of the reward. There may be no cash value in being employee of the month but the recognition can mean a lot to someone. Also recognition programs tend to be about recognising a ‘job well done’ whereas incentives are typically explicitly linked to specific accomplishments. While there can be a good deal of overlap between recognition and incentive programs HR should be alert to the underlying difference in philosophy.

However, while recognition and incentive programs both have their place, HR needs to realise that the most powerful type of recognition is not the kind that comes from a program at all, but the sort that comes as a sincere word of praise. HR may think this kind of day to day recognition falls outside their mandate and this is where Branham’s poignant comment about managers not knowing how to give praise should be noted. The most useful recognition is informal recognition, but the organisation will not benefit from it unless managers are trained in the right way to give praise.

Why is Praise Difficult?

Branham says that many managers have the mentality that “If you don’t hear from me you are doing a good job.” This is probably a sign that they don’t understand the impact recognition on performance; it may also be a sign that they are aware they are not good at giving praise.

How can someone be ‘not good’ at giving praise? There are a number of ways you can go wrong. One is to praise too often although this is probably less of a risk than most managers fear. Another is that praising one person may discourage the others, which is a legitimate concern. Another shortcoming is praise that is so general it has little meaning. Managers are right to think effective praise can be tricky, HR need to give them some guidelines.

Here are some principles on giving praise included some from Branham’s work:

Frequent. Praise should be frequent, once a week is a reasonable guideline.

Specific. Praise should be about something specific: a customer handled well, a difficult deadline met, timely assistance to a colleague.

Sincere. Managers should praise things they truly care about.

Immediate. Managers need to get in the habit of leaping in with praise when they see it is deserved. Waiting undermines the power of recognition.

Tuned to the individual. Some people want to be praised in public, some hate it. Some people need frequent praise, others don’t really care. Managers should be sensitive to these sorts of individual differences.


Recognition happens in the day to day flurry of managerial life. A manager may scarcely be aware of how much recognition they are giving and how it is being received. Tools, like 360 degree feedback and employee surveys, can be used to give managers feedback on how well they are using recognition. Using tools to measure is the only way HR, and managers, can know if the organisation is using this inexpensive and powerful reward mechanisms.

Learning to give praise is one of the most pleasant skills a manager can master; HR owes it to managers to help them develop that skill.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He can be reached at