Top 10 Scientific Principles to Apply to Rewards and Recognition

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Social science and behavioral economics provide a wealth of insights on motivation, recognition and rewards. Without getting too academic and scientific it is helpful to know some of the theoretical principles that have been discovered so we can use rewards and recognition more effectively. Learn these top 10 scientific principles well and put them into play with your recognition and reward practices and programs.

  1. Reciprocity. This universal behavioral economic principle of give and take flows in two directions respectively for either rewards or recognition. Employees are more likely to perform well in return when recognition is given to them. Employers reciprocate in kind to performance from employees by giving rewards. Use the two directions of both items for their reciprocity and maximum effect.
  2. Conformity. We see this principle over and over again. When best performers are acknowledged or rewarded, these standout players unknowingly influence those not recognized or rewarded. These unrecognized employees desire to conform to the normative behavior of high performers and pleasing the employer. Making rewards and recognition public impacts non-recipient performance.
  3. Messaging. When recognition is given you are actually sending positive messaging to employees that is hopefully communicating kindness from the employer to the employees. This positive feedback reinforces the power of positive pro-social behavior occurring. Take special care with the words you use in your communications.
  4. Validation. An important principle with rewards and recognition is the need for individuals to feel validated for their good deeds. That is why it is important to highlight best performers, to acknowledge the valuable contributions individuals have made and to validate the worth of people. Focus on the contributions and the difference people make.
  5. Justification. With rewards there is a perceptual difference between cash and matching value nonmonetary rewards. People are more inclined to say they would prefer cash over a tangible reward. But they typically work harder for nonmonetary rewards they could not normally justify spending their own money on. Design your programs well with what you actually give.
  6. Transferability. Rewards, whether currency or tangible items, can always be exchanged with others and they can choose to transfer them to someone else’s ownership. Recognition on the other hand is nontransferable and fills the emotional and psychological bank account which can never be exchanged. Add a strong recognition association even with any rewards you give.
  7. Social Utility. Is the social acceptance and satisfaction of a particular reward and the ease of being able to talk about it. The easier it is to talk about a reward someone has received the more positive performance elevation obtained. Research repeatedly shows cash has a lower social utility over nonmonetary rewards. Make your rewards items people will want to talk about.
  8. With reference to cash rewards keep in mind it is a lot harder to separate a cash reward from just being an incremental increase in salary versus a meaningful reward. People can more easily think about a nonmonetary reward than they can cash. Strive to stay clear of cash for small to medium sized rewards.
  9. Recognition is totally unexpected and is always a surprise expression of acknowledgment with spoken or written words alone or with a token of appreciation. Rewards, on the other hand, are always expected and follow the “if-then” formula of “if” you do this “then” you’ll get that. Understand the differences and use them in said manner.
  10. People are motivated extrinsically and intrinsically by fairness. Be careful to establish the rules of rewards equitably with performance expectations. Neuroscience has found that when an extrinsic reward is removed the residual intrinsic motivation is less than when no rewards existed. Create decision rules for rewards carefully and learn if ever removed whether motivation wanes.

This post was originally written for and published in Incentive Magazine.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Top 10 Scientific Principles to Apply to Rewards and Recognition

  1. Dear Mr. Roy Saunderson,MA, CRP
    May i have the honor to respectfully request from your good self that I will present your article , 10 scientific ways to apply in rewards and recognition. I find it helpful and relevant for our participants in our capacity training today.
    Hope for your kind approval on this request

    • Dear Florence,

      You have my permission to use this article in your presentation. At all times you must show full attribution by referring to my name “Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP” and by referencing the blog “”.

      I wish you well in your role as a principal and in helping others recognize their colleagues and the students the right way.