It’s a tumultuous time to be a consumer-facing brand, especially one that overlooks its people in the name of growth and the bottom line. Failure to make employees feel heard and valued has led to extremely public fiascos for a number of once-darling brands (you know the list… and it’s growing!), leaving the rest of us to theorize what would have happened if they’d just listened to their people from the get-go.

Perhaps this type of reflection was the motivation behind Delta’s “Big Thank You,” a 50-hour Facebook Live event last month during which the airline publicly recognized each of its 80,000 employees—Every. Single. One. It was one of the longest Facebook Live events to-date.

This type of company-generated, unprecedented action gives credence to the fact that great companies are focused on thanking their people—something that, if done right, can reap internal and external rewards. But while this mammoth effort to recognize employees is certainly buzz-worthy, it may not be realistic or even effective for every organization.

So, then how can companies recognize our people meaningfully, effectively, and personally—and make it count? In order to answer this question, let’s examine first the value of recognition, and why it’s historically been so challenging to get right.

Why is recognition important?

Recognition is a critical aspect of engaging employees because it reinforces what employees are doing right—and demonstrates appreciation for exhibiting certain values or behaviors directly aligned with the company. What a leader or manager chooses to recognize sends a signal about what the organization values, and how often they recognize sends a signal about how much the organization values its team members.

Research shows that recognizing people’s strengths is as important—or even more important—than giving critical feedback. The engagement pulses and employee feedback programs we design with our customers arm leaders with lots of valuable data. There are more than one million people giving feedback to their leaders on Glint’s platform, and we have observed a consistent theme in those leaders’ action plans: of all the different engagement drivers on which people can choose to act, a huge number of them are choosing to focus on improving recognition.

This is because recognition consistently has a high or very high statistical impact on both employee engagement and retention—in fact, across multiple organizations, Glint data show that employees who are unsatisfied with the recognition they receive are at least 3 times more likely to leave than those who indicate that they are satisfied. It is also frequently highly correlated with other critical drivers, such as perception of development opportunities, feeling valued, and feelings of empowerment. So, by enhancing recognition, you can both directly and indirectly improve People Success.

To improve recognition, we must first understand it…

As individuals, we all want to feel valued and appreciated, but how we want to be recognized varies from person to person. Each organization creates a different recognition experience based on their own culture and values, and these experiences differ for employees even within an organization depending on, say, the type of work they do or their geographic location. 

For example, sales people at one organization may prefer to be recognized publicly, while customer service employees may be clamoring for recognition-based development opportunities. In most cases, taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to recognition is a waste of time.

“But isn’t recognition really just about getting paid more?”

As an organizational development consultant with more than a decade’s worth of experience, I’ve heard this a lot. But what people are most vocal about can be misleading relative to what actually drives their behavior. Our data consistently show that satisfaction with compensation has a significantly lower impact on retention and engagement than other aspects of the employee experience, so take caution before focusing on compensation.  

Though compensation increases may be the right thing to do for talent acquisition and internal equity, don’t expect to see engagement or retention scores improve significantly as a result.

How can I have an impact on recognition?

To improve recognition across your organization, it is key to explore your employees’ unique needs. If you have current engagement data available to you, here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Look at the stats. Make sure you understand your employees’ perspectives on the connection between recognition and engagement, and how recognition correlates with other key drivers, not just at the organization level, but team-by-team as well.
  2. Understand context using employee comments. If available, utilize natural language processing tools to surface themes and better understand what employees mean when they talk about recognition.
  3. Drill into details. Identify specific comments that are truly representative of what your employees want to see or experience from formal and informal recognition programs. The best suggestions for how to improve or personalize recognition often come from your employees.
  4. Arm managers with frameworks to have conversations. Armed with data, context, and nuance, encourage managers to sit down and talk with their employees about these findings and brainstorm ideas about how to improve recognition within the team. Help leaders have one-on-one conversations about what makes their employees feel valued. Ask them to start with the question, “Do you know how much we appreciate you at (company)?” If they say yes, ask them how they know. If they say no, ask them what would help them to feel more valued.
  5. Facilitate opportunities to give recognition. We often think about what it means to receive recognition, but we also know that employees who frequently give recognition feel more confident, driven and dedicated to the success of their organization. So, don’t just look at recognition as the organization’s or leader’s responsibility. Build a culture of recognition by facilitating opportunities to get and give recognition at all levels.

We all want to be recognized, feel valued, and feel empowered to make a difference at the organization. Historically, providing employees with consistent and sustainable recognition has alluded most organizations. The good news is recognition is a highly trainable capability. It’s a habit that anyone can learn to form, and once it forms, it tends to stick. 

The best thing to do is start now, practice often, and learn from employee feedback to continuously refine and develop your organization’s recognition muscle.