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3 Tips to Make Micro-Recognition More Effective in Employee Engagement Programs

Chris Dornfeld, President and co-founder, Bonfyre

Chris Dornfeld, President and co-founder, Bonfyre

Employee performance is, and always has been, rooted in social interaction and the primal human desire for belonging. With the introduction of digital communication tools (and more recently social communication tools), recognition and employee engagement programs are increasing their impact by focusing on smaller, spontaneous and interpersonal moments of recognition. These “micro-recognition” moments occur as informal, real-time exchanges of social praise and feedback, performed by employees and leaders alike.

Micro-recognition stands in distinction to traditional recognition programs—bigger, less frequent rewards that come from the top-down at monthly, quarterly or even yearly intervals. More often than not these will involve material or financial rewards (bonuses, gift cards, prizes, etc.) designed to externally incentivize employees to perform well.

Performance is influenced by these external motivators, but what makes micro-recognition more valuable is that it triggers our intrinsic motivation—the natural motivation we all have that inspires us to work better, harder and more efficiently. An extensive number of studies, going back decades, have observed how social praise increases intrinsic motivation levels, and motivates us to outperform our extrinsically motivated peers.

To be fair, it is unreasonable to expect a person to be interested in and naturally motivated to perform every task in front of them. Not everything will inspire people to put their best foot forward. For those less interesting tasks, extrinsic motivators can actually be a powerful performance catalyst. That said, cultivating your micro-recognition programs will not only increase the impact of these incentives but increase your employee engagement as well. One recent study suggests that intrinsically motivated employees are three times more engaged than employees motivated by money.

"Cultivating your micro-recognition programs will not only increase the impact of the incentives but increase your employee engagement as well"

Follow the strategies below to successfully leverage micro-recognition for your recognition and employee engagement programs.

Be immediate, be frequent

One downside of traditional recognition programs is time—specifically the gap between when a desired behavior occurs and when it is recognized. For example, “Employee of the Month” awards are one month removed from any one particular noteworthy employee behavior being rewarded. Micro-recognition, however, has immediacy on its side. It happens “in-the-moment,” as a verbal appreciation of gratitude, and helps employees to draw immediate connections between the noteworthy behaviors they performed and the positive lift they feel from the instant recognition. According to research from Gallup, the more immediate the recognition is, the more powerful that lift becomes.

Gallup’s Jim Harter notes, “Recognition is a short-term need that has to be satisfied on an ongoing basis—weekly, maybe daily.” When we’re recognized, our brain releases dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel pride and pleasure. As we’re recognized more often, our brains develop a powerful positive reinforcement loop. Hungry for more dopamine, our brains will drive us to seek out and repeat praiseworthy behaviors. But if the recognition becomes less frequent than once a week, the loop dies down. Keeping your micro-recognition frequent and as immediate as possible can keep employees’ dopamine levels high and the desired behaviors top of mind.

Sincerity is key

As a recent study shows, the effectiveness of recognition is contingent on the perceived sincerity of the recognizer. Empty praise will simply never compare to thoughtful, genuine feedback from a leader or peer. If you don’t feel you can be sincere, it’s better not to recognize at all. We all have “tells,” verbal tics or expressions that belie our facades in times of insincerity. If an employee picks up on these it can erode their sense of trust in the relationship and ultimately cause more harm than good.

To help avoid this, be specific and stay focused on your subject. When praising someone, detailed descriptions of the noteworthy behaviors are always preferable. Broad statements of praise can confuse the specific actions you’re trying to promote, and can be mistaken as disingenuous.

Leverage technology for new insights

As the HR technology marketplace continues to grow, so does the opportunity to expand the reach and impact of micro-recognition programs. Today there are systems that offer micro-recognition as an experience similar to social media, where you can recognize someone in a digital space you share with your coworkers. While this form of micro-recognition should never replace building relationships in person, technology offers advantages that are too great to ignore.

Many employee recognition systems in the enterprise still lack software and technology components—Bersin by Deloitte estimates half of all recognition programs have no software integration whatsoever. But that gap will quickly close, and according to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), give way to a future where recognition programs are a robust strategic tool for leaders.

As more companies adopt these tools and more employees leverage these tools, new types of data is created that associates preferred outcomes with causal behaviors. Over time, that data can yield actionable insights to increase performance and the success of your business. For example, a leader might believe aggressive sales behavior earns the most profit for the company, but data could show that employees receiving micro-recognition for customer service bring in the most revenue. While this form of intelligence in recognition software is in its early stages, making the move to a platform that supports micro-recognition today could make all the difference for your business in the near future.

Ultimately there is no one-size-fits-all solution for performance, engagement and recognition. Each company, its culture and people are unique and will need to leverage these new micro-recognition tools in ways that create the most benefit for their specific company. But make no mistake, the value of micro-recognition is too great to be overlooked and is quickly becoming a critical element of every successful company.