Why You Need to Give Employees Public Recognition

When someone at your company receives recognition, it’s usually a positive experience for both parties directly involved in the exchange. What many leaders don’t realize is that when recognition is exchanged publicly, its positive impact is amplified exponentially. Why? 

It has to do with the way humans respond to praise, as well as the way people are able to learn through observation as an alternative direct experience. Public recognition capitalizes on these innate tendencies to positively influence behavior and benefit your business. The better you understand the why’s and how’s of public recognition, the more favorable a position your company will be in.

Why Public Recognition Is So Effective

Companies with thriving employee recognition programs tout many cultural and operational advantages. 

For years, corporate leaders regarded employee recognition programs as “nice-to-haves” — an extra benefit to make working for your company that much sweeter, but certainly not an essential component of what makes a company work. Yet, recent research has uncovered that the impact of employee recognition programs across an organization can be quite profound, especially when the practice emphasizes public recognition.

These advantages span many facets of business, including but not limited to:

On the surface, it’s not necessarily clear that a simple exchange of gratitude between colleagues would have an impact that far-reaching. The experience is positive to be sure — but how does it deliver such big results? It all traces back to the way the human mind operates and the way public recognition capitalizes on people’s innate tendencies to improve behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

Setting aside the differences between private versus public recognition, let’s take a moment to discuss why recognition as a concept is such a highly-recommended workplace best practice.

When one colleague recognizes another, the interaction typically follows the format of a classic positive reinforcement model. 

Positive reinforcement is an important theory from the field of behavioral psychology stating that behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. The positive experience of receiving a reward effectively encourages the recipient (whether consciously or unconsciously) to practice the same behavior again in the future,reinforcing said behavior. 

Private and pubic recognition follow the classic positive reinforcement model.
Private and pubic recognition follow the classic positive reinforcement model.

Both private and public recognition follow this same format. The reward is praise (accompanied in some cases by a token of appreciation such as a thoughtful gift or redeemable credits). The reinforced behavior is whatever the recipient was recognized for.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point: imagine two colleagues, Hannah and Charlotte, have been collaborating on a project, and Hannah has made the entire experience significantly smoother through thoughtful timelines and proactive communication. Charlotte appreciates Hannah’s effort, so she recognizes her with a quick note of gratitude and 50 credits to be redeemed for a gift of Hannah’s choosing. When Hannah receives the recognition, it makes her whole day.

In this scenario, Charlotte reinforced the behavior of excellent project management in her colleague, Hannah. Hannah had such an enjoyable experience receiving recognition and redeeming her reward that she’ll be likely to employ the same tactics on future projects knowing that these same behaviors historically produced favorable outcomes. And thus, positive reinforcement works its magic via a seemingly simple recognition.

Obviously the two parties involved in this example would benefit from the exchange — but if it had been public recognition, its impact would have been much greater.

Observational Learning

Counterintuitively, decades of psychological research indicate that you don’t always have to experience or practice a behavior to learn it. People can learn many behaviors and skills (at least to an extent) exclusively through observation.

Studies show people can learn behaviors simply through observation.
Studies show people can learn behaviors simply through observation.

The concept is known as “observational learning.” It’s so deeply embedded in the way the human brain operates that there is literally a specific kind neuron — a mirror neuron — that fires both when you perform an action and when you observe someone else do it. While scientists are still exploring the full implications of mirror neurons, behavioral studies have already made clear that learning through observation is entirely possible. 

Tying this neurological tangent back to employee recognition, this means that when an employee observes a peer being recognized and rewarded for a given behavior, they’re likely to internalize the lesson that the recognized behavior elicits a reward. Therefore the observer also will be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Simply by observing, they learn to improve performance.

Going back to our example from the previous section, if Charlotte had recognized Hannah publicly, other colleagues may have observed the interaction and been inspired to practice better project management as well. In this scenario, the recognition would not only have benefited the two employees directly involved in the exchange, but also anyone else who witnessed the interaction.

How to Support Public Recognition at Your Company

By now you know the benefits of employee recognition, and you understand why public recognition is the most high-impact version of the practice. Clearly, a smart company should have a thriving program in place to support this, but we understand quite well that the logistics of making this happen can be less-than-straightforward.

Below are five tips to support public recognition at your organization.
Below are five tips to support public recognition at your organization.

To support public recognition, enterprise organizations need to equip employees and managers alike with an accessible social feed that offers every employee, using any device, in any location, a singular experience. It’s the best way to promote complete visibility across the program and transform the initiative from a series of one-off “thank you’s” to a focused push to build culture and support top-notch performance. Programs like Fond make it easy for HR administrators to manage and track program efficacy and provide a seamless experience for employees who want to recognize their peers for great work.

Whether it’s Fond or another platform, there are a few best practices that you should keep in mind to help support effective public recognition at your company. Here are some useful recommendations:

1. Have Senior Leadership Take the Lead

What clearer way to send a message that your employee recognition program should be taken seriously than to have senior executives lead by example? When more junior employees see leaders of the company practicing regular public recognition, it sends the message that they should also participate by calling out their peers for excellent performance.

2. Get Peers Involved

Similar to other social platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, your recognition feed will be more engaging if peers have the ability to chime in on recognitions as opposed to merely reading through a list. Look for a platform that enables likes and comments on recognition in the feed so employees have the opportunity to echo their peers’ sentiments when so inclined. In this example, it can also be helpful to have leadership set the tone by regularly liking and commenting on others’ posts.

Pick a provider with an engaging social feed where peers can like and comment on public recognition.
Pick a provider with an engaging social feed where peers can like and comment on public recognition.

3. Set Custom Recognition Occasions

Another great way to make your public recognition program maximally effective is to create custom reasons to recognize that align with your organizational values or other important company objectives. In some cases, a barrier to regular recognition can be that employees don’t understand which behaviors warrant a formal recognition and which are better suited with a quick “thank you.” Having clearly outlined recognition occasions removes any confusion and makes it easy for participants to know exactly what behaviors they should call out. If you don’t know where to begin with customizing your recognition occasions, recognizing employees for living up to company core values, exceeding goals, and working effectively with other colleagues are all great ideas to get you started.

4. Customize Your Catalog

While you’re customizing your recognition occasions, you should also consider customizing your rewards catalog. That might mean offering an assortment of health-related rewards to align with an ongoing wellness initiative or designing custom company swag that can only be redeemed with points. Be sure your employee recognition provider offers this level of customization so you can design a program perfectly suited to your company.

Some employees prefer private recognition, so be sure to provide an option for that as well.
Some employees prefer private recognition, so be sure to provide an option for that as well.

5. Enable Private Recognition

Last but not least, it’s important to acknowledge that while the entirety of this article has touted the importance of public recognition, employees are individuals with unique experiences and preferences. You may encounter team members who are uncomfortable with recognizing or being recognized publicly, and that’s okay. Create space for employees to voice that preference and be sure you choose a program that has the option to make recognitions private so that everyone can feel comfortable participating.

With these best practices in mind, you’ll be able to create an effective employee recognition program that capitalizes on both positive reinforcement and observational learning to deliver maximum impact.

Win Together

Public recognition programs make it so when one employee does something great, the entire team benefits — and isn’t that the dream? With the knowledge you’ve gained from this article about the mechanisms that make public recognition so effective, go forth and support your team in building each other up. Everybody wins when you enable them to bring out the best in one another.

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.