The Amazing Spillover Effects of Formal Recognition

Over three-quarters of surveyed companies have some form of best-of-the-best or above-and-beyond formal recognition award program going on.

This is great for those employees who seem to excel and shine at everything they do. They end up enjoying the celebratory experience at the annual awards event.

But what about employees who don’t get an award?

Award programs can appear to create an exclusivity that pits one person winning over and above their fellow employees.

So how do peers perceive formal award winners? What are the benefits for companies of doing formal awards when so few employees actually end up receiving them?

I am going to explore this topic through the lens of some recent academic research I discovered this week.

Spoiler alert: The outcome is positive as the title of this post implies.

Let’s dig in!

Asking the Right Questions

Scientists from various universities recently investigated the spillover effects of formal individual recognition on their teammates. Their paper was titled “Recognizing “Me” Benefits “We”: Investigating the Positive Spillover Effects of Formal Individual Recognition in Teams”.

There is one thing academics are great at doing and that is asking good questions. They will pose several hypotheses and the goal of their experiments is to prove or disprove their original point of view.

In this case, one of the questions asked was can the recognition you give to one person positively influence the behaviors of their teammates.

They conducted two studies in laboratories with 24 and 40 teams respectively of university students. What made this study really fascinating was they also carried out one study in the field with 54 teams in a manufacturing company.

All experiments focused on conducting individual achievement tasks followed by a team achievement task. The experimental condition was that some teams had the top performing team member recognized while the control teams had no team member recognized.

What They Discovered

I will just focus on the real world study in the manufacturing company because this is what relates best to you and I in our jobs.

Employees, team leaders and department managers did timing and rating of their regular work performance. Timing was done 3 days before the intervention on their job performance as a baseline and the award recipients were noted as to their centrality or close working relationship with their teammates.

Half of the teams were randomly selected to have one member recognized as the employee of the month.

Team members rated team members’ task performance against 4 variables like, “performs the tasks that are expected as part of the job,” the degree of helping behaviors using 3 items such as “initiate help to co-workers who have heavy workload,” and vocal behaviors using two items like “raise suggestions to improve procedures on the job.”

Department managers had responsibility to measure the overall teams’ performance.

Managers used a 7-point Likert scale survey to rate 8 items of team performance that were both task and non-task specific actions. These covered areas like team planning and allocation, initiative, interpersonal skills, knowledge of tasks, quality and quantity of work, commitment to the team and general performance.

Results from this field study suggest that having an individual teammate formally recognized significantly increases the recipients’ teammates’ subsequent individual job performance.

That is a pretty amazing finding!

As you might expect, this positive correlation was strongest when the recipient had more interaction with the other team members on the job. But no matter the positive relationship team member performance still improved.

Recognition Significance For You

These findings suggest that companies with a well-defined formal recognition program, either knowingly or unknowingly, clearly direct the attention of non-recipient employees to the desired values and behaviors of the organization.

It also makes award recipients stand out as positive role models. Social scientists go further to suggest that the acknowledged behaviors foster social learning where non-recipients either passively or actively observe or learn from their recipient role models.

When award recipients work in close proximity to one another or work closely together on a project there is greater impact on non-recipients behavior than when you are not centrally connected.

Positive relationship strength is critical for recognition to have a greater impact.

Bottom-Line On Spillover From Formal Awards

From the research reviewed we learn that formally recognizing an individual team member also leads to positive changes in their teammates’ individual and collective performance.

You now have greater evidence that your formal recognition programs go beyond celebrating above and beyond performance of individuals in your organization. They can potentially motivate and impact the behaviors and performance of their teammates too.

Question: How have you seen formal recognition of one person positively affect the performance of their teammates?

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