How Do You Know When to Recognize or Reward Someone?

The question of when to recognize a person, or whether what they have done merits being rewarded, is a common issue especially for managers.

I believe you must start with defining what you mean by recognition and what rewards are first. Once there is agreement throughout the organization on these two definitions, you will be in much better shape to guide and prescribe when to use each of them appropriately.

Starting with Definitions

As a working definition, I define recognition as mostly an intangible expression of acknowledgement and valuing of an individual or team, for their positive behaviours, their personal effort or contributions they have made.

For rewards I define themas tangible, monetary or experiential items given to a person or team, in return for reaching pre-set goals, reaching a significant achievement, or special service performed.

Now let’s get into when you should use recognition versus when you reward someone.

When to Use Recognition

Like the Transportation Security Authority says in their airport public service announcements, when you “see something, say something.”

You give recognition whenever someone’s actions, effort, and positive behavior, triggers a positive emotion or feeling in you, causing you to want to express your feelings to the other person.

Your expression of acknowledgement will probably be a surprise for the recipient of your recognition. Make sure your recognition action or expressions is a pleasant surprise for them and respects their wishes.

What is key for helping to correct the perception that recognition equals rewards, is to always remember that when you give recognition, you do not have to give a reward. But whenever you give a person a reward, you must always accompany it with recognition.

When to Use Rewards

Be thinking above and beyond performance or significant results and these factors most likely merit a reward. You must have clear criteria and solid reasons for giving someone a reward.

Rewards are something tangible like a lifestyle or a preferred merchandise item. Rewards can be monetary or near cash like giving a gift card to an employee. And rewards can also be something experiential like a certificate to a golf course or a team building activity event off site.

Create a level-base of rewards where each level has different values (cash value or point values) based on achieving different criteria variables.

For example, you give a level one reward to someone who shows a positive action that is (1) low impacting results, and (2) singular (non-recurring) action to (3) me or my team (one versus many people may change the level), and (4) shows exemplary performance supporting our values.

Compare this with say, a level nine type reward, where the person’s actions are (1) high impacting results and (2) consistent and ongoing with (3) direct impact to your department (impacting many), and (4) achieved a strategic goal while supporting our values.

Carefully determine the specific reward values your budget allows and create an ascending monetary/points value to each level with their respective criteria variables. 

Recognition is foremost a relational experience while rewards are transactional. Recognition happens when you are emotionally affected by another person’s positive behavior enough, to say something or do something, to acknowledge them.

Rewards have the construct that if you do X behavior or achieve X results, then you will receive Y reward. Rewards are rule bound and have measurable criteria and should never be arbitrarily given on personal whims.

By starting with definitions and knowing that rewards require measurable criteria, you should be able to create some guidelines that help everyone to do the right thing for the right reason.

Recognition Reflection: How do you determine what deserves to be recognized or what you should reward?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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