The number of companies leveraging rewards and recognition programs is on the rise, and for good reason. Employee recognition is an effective tool for driving results and large-scale cultural progress.
It works because it’s rooted in one of the most powerful laws of psychology: that which is reinforced will repeat.
Of course, we’ll go over employee recognition examples in this article, but first we need to understand the scientific underpinnings of how and why recognition programs work. This will help you craft an effective program tailored to your company’s unique needs — one that works for the long-run. Once you understand the basics of positive reinforcement, you can try out these employee recognition examples in your own workplace and begin building an impactful rewards and recognition program.
The Basics of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is one of the most well-validated phenomena in all of Western psychology. It was first researched over a century ago by scientist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov realized that by teaching his dog to associate food with a ringing bell, he could eventually cue the dog to drool simply by ringing the bell, no food required. The dog learned that when the bell rang, a positive reinforcer (in this case, food) soon followed, and this important discovery shed light on the power of association.
The formula for positive reinforcement goes something like this: through a series of repeated experiences, a person (or animal, in more simplistic settings) learns to associate a given action with a given outcome. It could be as straightforward as learning to associate coffee with energy or as nuanced as relating a particular melody to successful team meetings. If the outcome is desirable, it functions as a reinforcer. The person will start to produce more of the associated behavior — either consciously or unconsciously — with the end goal of achieving the desired outcome. The logic is fairly straightforward and its applications are innumerable.
Today, this fact of human (and animal) behavior is regularly applied in motivational contexts with great success. Teach a child to associate finishing her homework with getting a piece of chocolate and she’ll surely complete more assignments in anticipation of the reward. Mice can learn to navigate astonishingly complex mazes and obstacle courses when rewarded for correct maneuvers. One woman even used reinforcement to train her husband out of a few less-than-lovable quirks.
In any setting, the rule remains consistent: what is rewarded is repeated. And the workplace is no exception.
How Positive Reinforcement Functions in the Workplace
To be fair, workplace dynamics are a lot more complicated than the examples above. Rewards and recognition programs boost morale, promote prosocial behavior, and lend a deeper sense of purpose to the work your team does every day.
But in addition to those extremely meaningful cultural contributions, rewards and recognition programs are undeniably capitalizing on the basic laws of positive reinforcement. The most effective employee recognition examples are informed by this fundamental psychological truth.
In the workplace, both rewards and recognition function as the desirable outcomes — also known as “reinforcers” — that eventually become associated with the behaviors you want to reinforce. Recognition works as an intrinsically satisfying reinforcer. That is, the good feelings that come with recognition are inherent and automatically occur any time someone is recognized.
Rewards, on the other hand, are more extrinsically satisfying reinforcers. Typically, workplace rewards are issued in the form of redeemable points or credits. While points themselves don’t hold much value, they can be exchanged for tangible goods and experiences that do, making them extrinsically satisfying. Both extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcers are effective, and the most effective employee recognition examples use both in combination.
Ask Yourself: Is It Replicable?
So, how do you actually apply all of this scientific information to improve the efficacy of your rewards and recognition program?
First, make sure you always recognize your team for repeatable behaviors. Since we know that reinforcing a behavior through recognition will increase that behavior’s frequency, it makes sense that you should recognize behaviors that have the potential to be repeated.
Here’s an employee recognition example to clarify the point: instead of recognizing an employee for staying late at the office to meet a last-minute deadline for one specific project, recognize them for consistently respecting deadlines and putting forth extra effort whenever necessary. While they (hopefully) won’t face a last-minute project again for a while, they will continually be pressed to meet deadlines and regularly experience situations that demand a little extra effort.
Recognizing and rewarding your employees for general commendable qualities they’ve demonstrated delivers a bigger impact for both you and your organization. You drive the repetition of behaviors that will be of value again and again.
If you’ve been recognizing your employees for more specific and non-repeatable behaviors, fret not. You’re not doing your company any harm. However, your recognition efforts will have a longer impact when they’re directed at the type of performance you want to see more of at your company.
These five employee recognition examples are designed to reinforce long term beneficial behaviors, in addition to boosting team morale in the short-term. In various ways, they focus on delivering recognition for the kinds of actions and values that should be increasingly commonplace in your employees’ work.
5 Maximum-Impact Employee Recognition Examples
1. Cross-Team Collaboration
When it comes to the different groups that make up an organization, no team operates in a vacuum. Despite the fact that branches of your organization perform different job functions, every member is ultimately working towards the same goal: your company’s success. The more collaboration between teams, the more unified your people will be in pursuit of this goal. Running a successful company involves facilitating frequent communication and collaboration between different teams. Not only is it healthy, it’s necessary.
Even so, it can be challenging — and sometimes frustrating— for employees to step outside their respective areas of expertise to collaborate with other teams. They will typically face a learning curve, and employees might be inclined to shy away from more difficult collaborative projects in favor of familiar tasks where success comes easily. With this in mind, when employees effectively collaborate with other teams, recognize them for it! The project required a little more than their usual effort, and the need for cross-team collaboration will undoubtedly come up again.
Implementing this employee recognition example at your own organization will serve you well by establishing a relationship between an individual’s willingness to take on unfamiliar tasks and the good feelings that come with being recognized. The next time they’re asked to work with another team, rather than feel daunted by the unfamiliar challenge, your employee may instead recall the rewarding feeling that came from their willingness to collaborate in the past. As a result, they will be more likely to face the challenge with an attitude of motivated optimism.
2. Ad-Hoc Tasks
No matter how well you organize your workflows and weekly to-dos, unpredicted and last minute tasks will always find a way to materialize. When this inevitably happens, it falls to members of your team to shift their busy schedules around for these projects. Big or small, most people aren’t exactly dying to take on last minute ad-hoc tasks — so the ones who do deserve to be appreciated.
When delivering recognition to employees for taking on last minute tasks, it’s important to keep the rules of reinforcement in mind. Focus on praising more general qualities, such as dynamic workflows or a cheery willingness to go the extra mile in pursuit of team goals. While whatever specific ad-hoc task your employee just completed probably won’t come up again, you’ll want to see these general qualities of accountability and hard work repeated often in the future.
Stay mindful about the way you call out this kind of work as you apply this employee recognition example at your own organization. . You’ll quickly shape a team of employees who take on last minute projects with a smile.
3. Core Values
Your core values define the day-to-day operations of your company, and they are massively influential in establishing company culture. While most modern companies have done a sufficient job of creating core values, few have mastered the art of reinforcing them.
Too often, core values are presented in a slideshow during employee onboarding and hardly spoken of again. When core values aren’t reinforced, they fall to the wayside, and their potential to positively impact your organization is all but lost. If you want your team to truly embody the priorities articulated by your core values, you need a system to regularly engage them.
Core value-based recognition is a fantastic way to do this. Remember the laws of positive reinforcement: by rewarding your employees for behavior that specifically exemplifies your company core values, you support the repetition of said behavior in the future. This practice will keep core values top-of-mind all the time for every member of your team.
4. Employee Wellness
Because holistic wellness is built through a long series of repeatedly healthy choices, it’s the perfect target for positive reinforcement. Many of today’s most successful organizations have implemented wellness-focused employee incentive programs that vastly improved their company’s collective health. Obviously this particular employee recognition example delivers benefits for your team, but you may not fully realize the impact of a healthy workforce on company success.
Research indicates that employee wellness is directly linked with workplace engagement, productivity, and culture. When you reinforce employees for making healthy choices, you’re building a team that is increasingly engaged in pursuing your company’s mission.
Beyond that, long-term wellness programs can decrease employee healthcare costs by as much as $30 per employee per month. When you’re supporting healthcare for hundreds or thousands of employees, those savings add up fast. Applying positive reinforcement to promote wellness in your workplace is a smart choice for your people and your company.
5. Long-Term Company Goals
Finally, while it is generally not advisable to tie reinforcement to specific projects, long-term company objectives are fair game. If it’s a goal you’ll be pursuing for many months or years, your team must remain continually committed to achieving it.
For example, say your organization is transitioning from domestic to international sales. That’s a large scale objective that will be accomplished through many smaller projects, and over a relatively long period of time. If you reinforce an employee for performance on a project that directly relates to this goal, the behavior is still very much repeatable because the long-term objective will remain a priority in the future.
In cases like this, positive reinforcement can be a good way to encourage behavior that reflects an awareness of and commitment to larger company objectives. Such behavior is critical for achieving major company goals and objectives.
3 Tips for Giving the Best Recognition
Nearly a century of psychological research has revealed a thing or two about the nuances of using positive reinforcement to drive results, and several findings are particularly applicable to employee recognition examples. These three guidelines will help you deliver the most meaningful recognition possible:
1. Keep It Unexpected
Positive reinforcement works most effectively when it’s unexpected. Psychologists refer to unexpected recognition as “variable reinforcement.” In psychological experiments, this means that, although a subject might know there is a relationship between a particular behavior and outcome, they don’t know precisely when the outcome will occur. Translated into workplace recognition, this means you don’t need to recognize every single instance of a preferred behavior. In fact, it’s all the more impactful when recognition comes as a surprise.
2. Give Recognition Right Away
When you try out these employee recognition examples with your own team, make sure you give recognition when or immediately after the commendable action takes place. The less time that passes between the exemplary behavior and the reward that reinforces it, the stronger the association between the two will be. Again, this workplace practice is backed by decades of psychological research.
3. Make It Social
Last but not least, delivering recognition in a social setting goes above and beyond reinforcing positive behavior in the employee being recognized. It also provides an inspiring example for other employees to strive for by encouraging them to replicate whatever behavior you are reinforcing in the future. Beyond that, giving recognition in a social setting makes it more fun; the whole team gets a chance to celebrate!
Put Your Knowledge to Use
As your rewards and recognition program evolves, consider implementing these employee recognition examples to get the most from it. Seek out a platform that allows you to set custom recognition occasions, and give careful thought to the longevity of the values and behaviors you are reinforcing in your team.
Always ask yourself that vital question: “Is it replicable?” This will automatically set you in the right direction, and following the psychology lessons discussed in this article will help you shape a maximally impactful program. By establishing a thoughtful system of reinforcement, you invest in the construction of long-term company success and a culture that can thrive well into the future.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.