Leaders in search of ways to improve work performance tend to overlook employee recognition as a serious solution.
Sure, it’s a great way to make the individual employee experience more enjoyable, but beyond that how much impact could it really have?
Actually, the answer is quite a bit.
From improving interdepartmental collaboration to aligning employees’ day-to-day job functions with major company objectives, the applications and potential positive outcomes of employee recognition are more far-reaching than many people realize.
Read on to learn more about why employee recognition is one of the most underappreciated ways to improve work performance, and how you can unlock its impact at your organization.
Why improving work performance is important
Leading a successful team is about more than picking the right people for the right roles. The fact is, even the best employees’ performance will suffer in a negative work environment. Conversely, weaker employees can be nurtured into strong ones if equipped with the resources, support, and motivation to improve, and already strong employees’ performance can be elevated to new heights as well.
To help your team as a collective realize its full potential, seeking and implementing ways to improve work performance is a must.
To some extent, improving work performance depends on an employees’ internal will to get better, but the company has a big role to play too. Over 70% of employees agree that company culture directly affects their efficiency, productivity, commitment to company goals, and ability to serve customers and do their best work. Clearly, the responsibility of supporting and improving employee performance falls in large part to the company.
Understanding this is one thing. Knowing how to actually support workplace performance is another thing entirely. The truth is, there are a lot of different ways to approach the challenge, ranging from offering continued learning and development to implementing more effective workflows to leveraging employee recognition programs to achieve strategic goals.
This article takes a concentrated look at the latter, but keep in mind that the best approaches will be comprehensive, iterative, and unique to your company.
The rest of this article will be dedicated to exploring specific, actionable ways to align your employee recognition program with objectives that contribute to better work performance, but underlying all this is a critical factor with far-reaching effects on the way individuals behave at work: employee engagement.
Before we move on to discussing why employee recognition is one of the most effective ways to improve work performance, let’s establish a bit more context by exploring how employee engagement relates to both.
How employee engagement factors into improved work performance
Put simply, employee engagement is the connection an employee feels with their place of work. It exists on several levels, including employees’ engagement with the organization as a whole, with their colleagues, and with the work itself.
For the sake of this discussion, there are two main things to keep in mind about employee engagement.
First, it’s been shown to benefit companies in a variety of ways, and many of these effects trace back to the impact engagement has on job performance. A report by Harvard Business Review found that 71% of leaders say employee engagement is one of the most important factors in achieving organizational success. The same report described how companies with high levels of engagement have both more productive and more innovative teams.
The second thing to keep in mind is that one of the best things you can do to support employee engagement is to recognize your team.
One of the major reasons employee recognition programs are such effective tools for improving job performance overall is because they boost employee engagement. When people become more engaged, they’re more invested in their work and therefore perform better at their jobs.
The recommendations shared below are intended to specifically reinforce behaviors that contribute to better job performance, but keep in mind that the relationship between employee engagement and employee recognition means that no matter what you recognize employees for, recognition programs are one of the best ways to improve work performance.
5 ways to improve work performance
These five recommendations will help you capitalize on one of the best ways to improve work performance: employee recognition. Whether you already have a program in place or are looking to optimize an existing program, these strategies will help you bring out the best in your team.
1. Push your team toward specific goals
Most employee recognition programs feature preset occasions that participants can recognize one another for. It’s up to the company to determine what these recognition occasions will be—it could be anything from celebrating colleagues for working like a team, to recognizing quantitative milestones, to acknowledging a work anniversary.
If an objective of your employee recognition program is to improve work performance, it’s a great idea to use major team or company-wide objectives as some (if not all) of your custom employee recognition occasions.
This is effective for several reasons:
- It emphasizes the importance of goals. Think about it. If your entire recognition program is centered around a handful of objectives, it sends the message that they must be pretty important. Prioritizing a goal highly enough to designate it as something employees deserve recognition for sends the message that this goal is an important one, and employees who make progress towards achieving it will be rewarded accordingly.
- It helps keep goals top of mind. Imagine you hosted a company-wide meeting announcing a new objective to expand your company’s global reach. Immediately after, employees across departments were engaged and excited to make this change, but a couple months into the year the goal has begun to slip from mind and employees seem to think of it less and less frequently.
One of the best ways to improve work performance and create more goal-oriented employees is to make major goals into recognition occasions. This way, when employees see their fellow colleagues living up to these objectives, they’ll be reminded that they should be striving to do the same.
- It provides an easy way to celebrate progress. With company objectives already set as custom recognition occasions, you have everything laid out to easily celebrate when your goals come to fruition. With the right recognition program, celebrating major company milestones can be as easy as writing a quick note of appreciation and pressing send.
The best employee recognition programs will allow you to create custom occasions within specific teams or departments as well as across the company. This provides a valuable tool to keep employees aligned with their goals and makes it much more likely that you’ll ultimately see these objectives realized.
2. Improve relationships between colleagues
It’s human to want to know that the hard work you contribute at the office is seen, appreciated, and valued. Yet too often, colleagues neglect that all-important step of explicitly calling one another out for great work, and unspoken appreciation is almost the same as no appreciation at all.
As a result, employees’ perception can sometimes be that they’re not adequately recognized by their peers – or worse, managers – for the immense amount of effort they put into delivering fantastic work on behalf of your organization.
Data confirms that a lack of appreciation at work can be a big problem. Some 46% of employees report feeling unsatisfied with their employer’s recognition practices. Unfortunately for those employers, another study confirmed that over 80% of employees will work harder when they do feel appreciated at work. Putting two and two together, all those employees who don’t feel they are sufficiently appreciated at work could perform better if they received a bit of recognition.
Keep in mind that a lack of recognition at work doesn’t mean colleagues actually don’t appreciate one another; it just means they’re not in the habit of saying it. One of the most meaningful ways to improve work performance is by improving peer-to-peer relationships. Employee recognition programs can help accomplish that by providing a frictionless way for colleagues to let one another know that their hard work is, in fact, seen, appreciated, and valued.
3. Help employees find their strengths
One of the reasons it’s so important for managers and employees to express what they appreciate their colleagues for is because the practice of recognition helps employees understand exactly where and how they add value to the team.
For example, imagine you have one employee who has a keen sense of numbers and creates the most exquisitely organized, logically constructed spreadsheets. This colleague can spin even the messiest data into clean conclusions, and your entire team is better off for this person having this particular strength.
Now imagine that this person has little to no awareness of just how helpful their data analysis skills are for the rest of the team. They have no idea how often their colleagues reference the spreadsheets they put together, or the way their presentations help clarify the team’s understanding of broader project goals.
As a result, it may not ever occur to this person that their data analysis skills are a valuable strength for the rest of the team and consequently, they may pass up opportunities to harness and nurture this strength due to the fact they don’t even know it exists.
How do you remedy that? Once again, employee recognition offers a great solution. It only takes a couple minutes, but letting a team member know what you value about their work can do a lot to help that person gain objective insight into their own strengths. When this starts to happen, every employee will have the opportunity to learn what they’re good at so they can focus on building up their own strengths.
4. Reinforce company core values
Similar to how you can align custom recognition occasions with major team or company-wide objectives, you can also use core values as recognition occasions to help establish them as guiding principles behind the way your entire organization operates.
While most companies do have core values, few get them right. Your company core values should be unique and specific, as opposed to general platitudes that could be endorsed by any half decent company. They should resonate with the culture that presently exists at your organization, yet also feel aspirational. After all, these values are meant to guide your company for years to come which means if growth is a goal, they need to be able to grow with you.
Just outlining the right set of core values for your company can be an extremely intense and effortful process – and that’s just the beginning. Once these values are in place, they need to be broadcasted across the company so everyone knows what they are. And not just once.
Core values have the potential to be one of the most effective ways to improve work performance, but you need to have a systematic strategy for ensuring that they’re regularly thought of and celebrated. You can probably already guess what we’re going to say next: employee recognition can help.
When you align your recognition occasions with company core values, it helps transform them from high-level behavioral ideals to actionable principles employees know and live by. Here’s how:
- It helps keep them top of mind. When you center your recognition program around company core values, employees who want to recognize one another will need to be on the lookout for times when their colleagues live up to these values so that they can celebrate them accordingly.
Being primed to notice this behavior naturally helps increase its frequency. Additionally, public social feeds of employee recognition make it possible for colleagues across departments to witness and celebrate one another living up to company core values. Upon seeing this celebration, it’s more than likely other members of the team will be inspired to do the same.
- It provides examples of what living company core values looks like in practice. One of the problems with core values is that they tend to be so high-level that although they sound good in theory, it’s hard to know what they would actually look like in practice.
For example, say that your organization says that trust is one of its most fundamental values. That sounds great, but what does it actually mean? Recognizing a colleague for doing something that builds trust – like being vulnerable about their weaknesses or transparent when they didn’t have to be – helps provide realistic examples of which specific behaviors embody your company core values.
- It incentivizes employees to live up to core values. Lastly, everyone loves to be recognized, so when you set company core values as custom recognition occasions, you give employees an extra incentive for living up to them. This effect is amplified even more when recognition is accompanied by rewards such as gift cards or redeemable points. The program can serve as a way to clearly incentivize your team to incorporate company core values in the way they work.
As you can imagine, when employees operate according to the values you set forth to define the most ideal version of your company, great things happen. Job performance across the organization will become more consistent, and you’ll begin to see more and more of the ideal behaviors you want to encourage among employees.
5. Break down siloed departments
Finally, employee recognition can be one of the most effective ways to improve work performance because of the insight it provides across departments. This point is especially apt for teams working remotely, as so many are these days, but it applies to collocated colleagues as well.
When there’s visibility across departments, employees have a better understanding of how their own work fits into the bigger picture. Having this high-level view of the organizational roadmap can help employees to be more goal-oriented in their work.
How does employee recognition promote this? Most companies today facilitate their employee recognition programs via software that supports a company-wide social feed.
This feed is accessible virtually anytime, anywhere, and employees can engage with it even when they’re not directly involved in the recognitions by liking and commenting on their colleagues’ interactions. This creates a virtual place where colleagues can see and celebrate wins across the entire company, not just within their own department.
Employee recognition benefits employers and employees alike
When used strategically, employee recognition programs have the potential to be one of the most effective ways to improve work performance across your team. In fact, one study even found that employees say better, more frequent recognition is the number one thing their managers could do to inspire them to produce great work.
Not only does employee recognition improve the quality of the individual employee experience by helping employees feel appreciated, it also contributes to a stronger company overall.
By highlighting individual strengths, encouraging employees to keep major goals and values in mind, and building peer-to-peer relationships within and across departments, a little recognition really can go a long way.