Thanks? When and Why Employee Recognition Works

How can you keep employees happy and motivated?

  • Provide recognition for exceptional performance
  • Make the work meaningful
  • Pay a bonus for a job well done


We’re done here, right?


Wait a minute…let’s talk about how these things actually work. In this post, we will discuss the basic concepts behind employee recognition, along with some insights from research testing how different types of recognition can influence effort and performance.


What does public recognition actually accomplish?

Some of the most common forms of employee recognition include “Employee of the Month” programs with dedicated physical displays, trophies, leaderboards, parties, and public ceremonies.

Public recognition can be a great way to show appreciation, and also can be a very powerful motivator.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about public recognition is the reason why it motivates people: Because it is essentially the same thing as meaningful work.


What is meaningful work?

Definition 1 (The very narrow, classic definition) Creative pursuits, helping others in need, solving an important problem or improving society in some way.

While the work described by Definition 1 can provide a great sense of motivation, it is by no means the only type of “meaningfulness” that motivates people.


Definition 2 (The broader definition) Any benefits, consequences, or results of the work done. These things are often just part of the person’s job description.

Simply reminding people that their work produces (or contributes to) actual results can also boost effort and performance.


In general, there are two different ways of asking someone to do something. Think about the difference between:

  • Would you do X?
  • Would you do X because Y?

The extra part of the second request can be an easy way to recognize the importance of the person and their work. It can even be used to show appreciation or gratitude.

But it doesn’t necessarily matter how important or obvious the reason (Y) already seems. Even simply adding the word “because” and the actual result is itself a powerful reminder that the work results in an actual (meaningful) outcome. Nerd note: Psychologists call this “placebic information.”


When is paying a bonus actually a good idea?

Some work just isn’t particularly meaningful. And sometimes people just aren’t that excited about what they do. The promise of a monetary bonus can be helpful in this case.

However, keep in mind that a little extra money doesn’t motivate people nearly as much as a sense of meaningfulness. The promise of public recognition in some form is likely to result in much greater effort and performance.


Can money enhance the motivation to do meaningful work?

Probably, but keep in mind that money doesn’t necessarily mix well with the more public aspects of meaningfulness. Adding a money incentive to an already-meaningful recognition can easily “cheapen the experience” or undermine the idea that someone has gone “above and beyond” (is it still “above and beyond” if they get paid extra for it?).

Contrast that with the research showing that monetary bonuses can actually enhance the motivation to do meaningful work, but only when they happen in a more private context.

In short, a public emphasis on work results and worker recognition can be great motivators, but try to keep the discussion of tangible rewards separate.




Photo credit: 401(K) 2012

  1 comment

  1. Avatar Praveen   •  

    Nice artical! employee appreciation, engagement and benefits has become an important factor in India now, considering the huge amount of attrition with recent times. My company, Work Advantage, is one of India’s biggest employee benefits aggregator. Please visit if you wish to extend an awesome employee benefits package to your corporation. Thank you!

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