champagne on iceWhat is the purpose of employee recognition? It is to express appreciation for and validation of a person’s extraordinary contribution, extra effort or other accomplishment above and beyond the daily expectations. This is a simple concept. After all, one of the first things we teach our children is to say, “Thank you,” to others. So why, is showing appreciation or saying, “Thank you” so difficult in organizations? I believe the answer is that many organizations focus on implementing Employee Recognition programs instead of working to create a culture of high performance standards and sincere appreciation. And, since most of the programs are designed, implemented and managed by the Human Resources department, all too often the action being recognized and the moment of recognition becomes diminished by red tape, committee review, final approvals and the passage of time.

One of the most mind-numbing meetings that I have ever attended was a presentation by a Director of HR at one of my former employers. She had been leading a task force comprised of managers, HR Business Partners and employee representatives throughout the company to create a new Employee Recognition Program. While I don’t remember the details of the program, I vividly remember the two-hour meeting in which the team talked about their proposal. I sat there as they reviewed detailed categories of the types of things employees could do to merit recognition and how the various contributions aligned to certain levels of recognition in the program. This was followed by pages of guidelines that defined who was qualified to be recognized and how often; the specific categories of allowable recognition; and how it was all going to be managed and monitored to ensure the program wasn’t abused. I remember thinking, “Geez, employee recognition should be a lot more fun! It should be a heart felt “thank you” to the person receiving the recognition. Recognition should create a buzz that inspires others, not be one big blob of bureaucratic red tape!” My mind drifted to the words, “Encouraging the Heart,” which is how Kouzes and Posner describe employee recognition in their book, The Leadership Challenge. This program had no heart! I left the meeting depressed.

As life’s lessons often go, I walked straight from that meeting to my monthly one-on-one with the SVP of Product Development. One of the topics he wanted to talk about was a special recognition bonus for an employee who had just completed a complex project that was of great value to the company. He was seeking my support to recommend a large spot bonus cash award. Given the details of her work and contribution there was no question the award would have been approved, and I told him that. However, I was still thinking about meaningful recognition, so I suggested a different approach. Drawing on the principles of “Encouraging the Heart,” I saw this as an opportunity for the leader to really do something special, something personal, something that would have greater impact than a check. So I helped the manager brainstorm some other ideas that might have more of a wow-factor. I asked him what the employee liked to do and he said she was an avid hiker. I thought we were on to something, so I suggested he do something along those lines. In the end we agreed to give the employee an extra day off for a long weekend and a significant gift card to a local sports store. He really embraced the idea and off he went.

The following week I received a visit from the manager who was brimming with excitement. The employee had been deeply moved by the personal recognition. She had told him it was the most meaningful “thank you” message she had received in her career, even though she had been the recipient of many cash bonuses in the past. Furthermore, the impact of that personal and heartfelt recognition stayed with her through the years. She went on to be one of our top managers and carried that same level of thoughtfulness as she led her teams. (By the way, the final cost for this personal recognition was less than one-tenth of the amount the SVP original wanted to pay in the cash bonus—a win-win).

I have since used this approach many times with my own teams, or when designing organizational recognition guidelines and coaching leaders. It’s simple, it’s meaningful and it is often more impactful than cash. Why? Because personal recognition is sincere. It demonstrates to the employee that their unique contribution deserves unique appreciation and that you have invested some thought to make the moment special.

Of course, there are other aspects to developing a culture of appreciation, and there are budget, guidelines and governance issues that always need to be considered. But you will never go wrong if you remember the following tip: “While recognition programs and similar organizational rituals have their place, the best encouragement is always given personally, according to the individual’s own value system. Find out what your direct reports, leaders and peers find meaningful and recognize each individual accordingly.”