The Importance of Teaching People The Definitions of Recognition Terms

If there is one thing that I have learned from over 25-years in the recognition field, it’s that people define the same terms completely differently. For some people, they say recognition and they really mean rewards, and it’s difficult to shift their mindset. Then there are others who think that rewards are the only form of recognition they need.

That’s why I always strive to level-set the playing field by educating everyone on the working definitions of terms like recognition and rewards. My recommendation is for you to do exactly the same thing where you work. Teach everyone the definitions that resonate for you and your organization.

Level-Setting Recognition and Rewards 

First, let me share with you the uphill battle you’re facing with wanting to have a common vocabulary of terms.

You may well recall taking a Psych 20 first year psychology class at university. In psychological terms, they considered recognition being an intrinsic reward, or an intangible award of recognition.

Then there are the professional and trade associations like WorldatWork, SHRM, etc. who add fuel to the fire. WorldatWork places recognition under their total rewards model, which can confuse people. And while SHRM says recognition is “an acknowledgment of employee achievement,” they state that recognition can also involve either a monetary or a nonmonetary reward. 

Recognition Professionals International has laid out their attempt at defining recognition and rewards. For recognition, they define it as an after-the-fact appreciation for desired behavior, effort, or result that support goals and values. They define rewards as an item for meeting pre-determined goal (sometimes monetary). 

My Recognition Definitions For You 

I feel most of these definitions touch on the elements of defining them, but they don’t go far enough.

Here’s how I define recognition, rewards, and awards. 

Recognition is 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. 

Just the other day, I was conducting a webinar, and I asked the attendees what I had stood out for them so far. I had given several concepts and principles around recognition practices and programs. One person told me, “I never thought of recognizing someone’s personal effort before.” 

That insight came because of a carefully thought-out definition of recognition.

There is no limit to the amount of authentic and well-expressed recognition that you give to someone who has genuinely acted in a way that deserves acknowledgment.

Rewards are 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. 

Rewards are for going above and beyond. In fact, people expect rewards because they know that if they do X action, they will get Y reward.

Research shows you can give people too many rewards where a saturation point is reached, and they lose meaningfulness. This is when people start feeling and communicating their entitlement for even more rewards and they become dissatisfied. Such reactions especially occur when there is a lack of recognition and rewards are the only “game in town.”

Awards straddle between recognition and rewards in that they recognize an individual or team, and may include a trophy and a reward, and is a means to publicly honour, the best of the best either through earned merit, length of service, or through an adjudication of a nomination. 

There is a recognition to reward continuum that can help you see the progression from appreciation to rewards. Recognition always comes first. It should precede any receipt of rewards. On the recognition side the activities are more personal and intangible. For the rewards you’ll see how they are more impersonal in nature and tangible in form.

Defining Recognition Practices and Programs

On top of those definitions I have just outlined, there are also recognition practices and recognition programs. Even these terms can sometimes get misunderstood.

Recognition Practices

Recognition practices are the frequent, personal, and habitual behaviors people do to express appreciation and recognition to others, as well as the cultural and customary ways an organization has of showing people that they and their contributions are valued.

Recognition practices will always have a far greater impact on people than recognition programs. However, the combination of having both only enhances the capabilities that recognition can have on people and performance.

Recognition Programs

Recognition programs are the regular, informal or formal, organizational procedures and online administered programs for providing immediate or scheduled, individual or team, acknowledgment, recognition, awards, incentives or rewards, for achieving various strategic, behavioral or performance-based criteria. 

I always remind leaders and recognition program managers that recognition programs are simply a tool that helps them to practice giving recognition. The powerful impact of recognition programs is their ability to produce data that can be analyzed to predict future results and outcomes.

Benefits from Defining Terms 

By having whatever clarifying definitions you decide upon, it will help you, your organizational leaders, recognition practitioners, managers, and employees to better understand the differences between recognition and rewards.

These definitions practically guide you on how to use recognition and rewards most effectively. I have reminded people that, “whenever you give people recognition, you don’t have to give them a reward. But when you give someone a reward, you must always accompany it with recognition.”

Here is another simple rule for you to follow: you recognize behaviors, and you reward results. 


By clearly defining what makes up recognition versus rewards, you can better use both of them more effectively. 

These definitions help managers and employees know what to expect of them and how they might merit being recognized and rewarded.

As Harvard business professor, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter once said, “Compensation is a right. Recognition is a gift.” Master using recognition and rewards the right way by agreeing on the definitions that you will use in your organization. 

Recognition Reflection: Do you have functional definitions of recognition and rewards in your organization?

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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