The Best Leading Indicator for Employee Recognition

All of us are striving to help people in our organizations feel valued and appreciated for their contributions and for who they are. We’re also tasked with showing everyone how to give more effective and meaningful recognition face-to-face and with using our online recognition programs.

And the only way we know how well we are doing is by measuring the outputs of recognition through our recognition programs and through employee perceptions on recognition received through engagement surveys. 

But is there another way that you can refocus what you measure that will lead to more recognition giving?

Understanding Your Metrics

Back in 2007, Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton authored The Balance Scorecard to assist businesses in moving from ideas to action, achieving long-term goals, and in getting feedback about strategy. 

With their focus on performance management and measurement Kaplan and Norton refer to measures called “lagging” and “leading” indicators.

A lagging indicator looks back at whether you achieved the intended result, while a leading indicator looks forward at future outcomes and events. A lagging indicator is an outcome measure and a leading indicator is a performance driver.

The challenge with these is that lagging indicators are easy to measure but hard to improve upon or influence. For example, with recognition programs you have the outputs of how many people have sent and received recognition related e-cards and who and how many employees have not received e-cards. That is a helpful outcome measure but how can you improve it?

In contrast, a leading indicator is a measure that is input oriented—it is a driven measure to impact performance. This makes it hard to measure but easy to influence because it is totally in your control.

To give a Human Resources example let’s look at training and development in an organization.

Several of our company’s employees recently went through a particular qualification course. In this situation the lagging indicator would be the percentage of employees who completed the qualification. This is an outcome measure but you cannot change it once completed.

Compare this with a leading indicator for training such as the average number of training hours per employee. As a performance driver you can encourage staff and allot “X” amount of time per day for staff to complete this qualification program.

As you can see in this example, the leading indicators are often less precise but offers an interesting insight into the ongoing impact on performance measures. The lagging indicator is more precise, but only after the fact.

Best Measures of Recognition

You need both lagging indicators and leading indicators to positively affect change in employee recognition, or any outcome.

I read a great example addressing lagging and leading indicators using weight loss. You get the lagging indicator every time you step on the scale to see your current weight in pounds or kilograms. 

With weight loss there are two leading indicators you can use. The first is calorie intake, and the second is calories burned off. You can easily influence these factors but they are hard to measure—although there are many apps now available to approximate calorie count of what you eat and calories used in exercise.

Now, what about employee recognition?

You either recognized a person or you didn’t. 

With recognition programs that is easy to measure. 

  • How many nominations were made? 
  • How many points were given to employees? 
  • How many recognition e-cards did you send?
  • How many employees have not been recognized? 

And then there is the percentage of agreement or disagreement by employees with specific recognition related questions or statements on your annual engagement survey. Now that is a super late, lagging indicator.

The problem is you cannot influence an outcome measure or lagging indicator. But you can influence a leading indicator. Ask yourself what are the activities people must do to achieve the desired outcome.

By examining what activities and behaviors precede a recognition experience you can create a specific leading indicator.

For example, I think one of the best leading indicators of recognition is the number of interactions a person has with another individual. The more encounters I have with you whether in person or virtually, by email or phone call, I will hear of your work experiences, contributions, achievements, positive attributes, and actions. This becomes an incredible source of what I can recognize you for.

This leading indicator gives me something I can plan for. I can set my own target for how many interactions I will have with my staff on a daily or weekly basis.  And we know that the more interactions I have the greater chance I will have to recognize my staff.

Remember, your goal is to get people to sincerely recognizing one another more often. The nature of your industry and work environment, along with the proximity of your employees, may cause you to generate a different leading indicator or several.

Your leading indicator must be:

  • A future looking metric.
  • A future event or activity.
  • Something you can control or influence.
  • Something achievable and relatively easy to do. 
  • Easy to communicate to people.
  • Meaningful and useful to do.

I like the idea behind the number of interactions I have with my work colleagues. I can control those encounters and then be more aware and open to listening for, or observing, the positive things people do that I know merits recognition.

You may well come up with other ideas. The key is lead with positive action.

Recognition Reflection: What activities do you feel precede most recognition experiences?

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