What Makes Recognition Different From Appreciation?

A subscriber of our Authentic Recognition blog suggested I should write about the difference between recognition (more related to work) versus appreciation (more related to the person).

I asked them why this topic was important right now. It seems their organization uses the Gallup Organization’s Q12 engagement survey every two years. In the past year they focused on the recognition specific question/statement #4, “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work”. 

Her research, like many of us have found, led her to see that “recognition in the workplace” has so many meanings.

She wisely observes that “people fundamentally want to be ‘understood and cared for’ or ‘appreciated’ and would prefer that over ‘recognition’”

She asked for my thoughts on the differences between recognition and appreciation.  Apparently, her organization will likely continue with using recognition. However, she wonders if more time should be spent on appreciation instead of recognition in order to improve the Gallup survey scores.

My Thoughts on Recognition and Appreciation

When I founded my own recognition training company back in 1996, I was called into companies to help them improve employee recognition, usually after they had received back their employee engagement survey results.

Every company I met with was doing some aspect of informal and formal recognition already. But employee feedback to questions like, “Do you feel recognized/appreciated/or valued (or some variation on a theme) for the work you do?” were indicating they had poor results.

As a broad average I can tell you that any score below 65 percent on these recognition questions is not a good sign. I can also tell you that whenever the score is below 65 percent that the organization has a problem with managers and staff not giving everyday recognition to people.

And I remember asking these clients something like, so you’re giving recognition in some form or another and probably using recognition programs, but is it real recognition? To which they immediately asked, “Oh! What’s real recognition?”

That’s when I realized I had to come up with a definition for real recognition.

Here’s what I came up with: “Real Recognition is any thought, word, or deed towards making someone feel appreciated for who they are and recognized for what they do.”

In my navel gazing on this definition you can see there are several parts to it.

  1. Any thought, word, or deed towards appreciating and recognizing people. It takes thinking about a person, expressing your thoughts into words or some form of action to show a person they are appreciated and recognized.
  2. Appreciate them for who they are. This is independent of any action on the employee’s part. Appreciating people happens before a person does anything—work or contribution. Do you appreciate the person for their talents and abilities, their ethnicity, their family background, all that makes them who they are?
  3. Recognized for what they do. This was essential because employees told me they tend to get recognized only when they have completed a project or job. They wanted to be acknowledged along the way. They wanted to be recognized for the doing not just what was done.

In reality, I think my definition combines appreciation and recognition into one behavior set. I use the words interchangeably to mean the same thing.

A Revised Definition

More recently I have thought upon a completely new way of looking at recognition.

What if we defined it as the transfer of positive feelings and emotions from one person to another? How you choose to convey those positive feelings and emotions is totally up to you and how you personalize that to the needs and wants of the recipient.

You felt something when you observed someone, whether them being themselves or doing some work. Now, you want to convey your admiration and respect for that person or their contributions. That’s when you recognize someone and you tell them how you feel so they feel positively about themselves and their work.

Recognition and Reward Continuum

I once drew a line and tried to place all the various reward and recognition terms out there along some form of continuum. The poles at either end of that continuum line focus on the degree to which those terms are tangible and impersonal versus intangible and personal.

As you see in Figure 1, you’ve got compensation and rewards at one end of the spectrum and recognition and appreciation at the other.

Figure 1: Recognition & Reward Continuum

However, what you really need to get over this semantic divide is to determine your own organization’s definition of what recognition and appreciation are. What is the purpose of recognition? How will recognition look like where you work? What have employees said they are lacking, want, or need? Why give recognition anyways?

The Recognition versus Appreciation Debate

Dr. Paul White, who is a good friend of mine, outlines in his co-authored book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, what he feels are the limitations of the “narrower recognition and award approach.”

I know where Paul is coming from but I don’t necessarily agree with his black and white delineation. My perspective is that there are semantics involved, degrees of interpretation, and thereby you get a lot of people misusing and not giving the right words and actions. And that goes for giving appreciation as well as for recognition or rewards.

Dr. White brings forward the following Limitations of recognition. I include my viewpoints.

Limitation #1: Emphasis on Performance

Yes, this has been and can be a problem. The argument here is that recognition is solely performance driven and appreciation is not. This has historically been the case.

But I think there are enough companies who understand their people and human behavior where they bring in a lot of heart and caring. Recognition can be performance, but I believe it is more often about feelings, caring, and even appreciation. I think of my friends at Southwest Airlines and all they do to demonstrate such attributes to their staff. It’s not all performance driven. 

So I think recognition done the right way also focuses on valuing people and is not just about performance.

Limitation #2: Missing Half the Team

Yes, when rewards are the main focus recognition is always obscured. That’s why I tell people that when you give recognition you don’t have to give a reward. But whenever you give a reward you must always give people recognition with it.

Dr. White suggests that when you only use Words of Affirmations (recognition) and Tangible Gifts (rewards) you are neglecting the other languages and thereby “missing half the team”. While I love the principles behind the different appreciation languages and use them as best I can, I think you can give people recognition that is personalized sufficiently to acknowledge people and value their contributions. Do you always know a person’s appreciation language at the spur of the moment? I don’t think so. When something is significant for an employee, then you sit down and put more thought, time, and effort into how you will recognize or appreciate someone.

Limitation #3: “Top-Down” Recognition

Yes, traditionally recognition, and especially rewards, has been top-down in origin—managers to employees. Recognition is a relatively new phenomenon and its forerunners were rewards and awards. Rewards and awards came from senior leaders and this originated from military leaders giving ribbons and medals to their soldiers under them.

However, I have always said that recognition is owned by everyone and should be multidirectional in origin. I think that is happening more and more. Perhaps the reality that recognition should be everyone’s responsibility is what‘s driving more requests for peer-to-peer recognition programs. Nearly fifty percent of organizations now have social recognition programs, which allows everyone in any position to give peers recognition.

Limitation #4: Significant Financial Cost

Yes, when you only use awards and rewards and online programs there is a cost. I think it is unwise, though, to say recognition always costs and appreciation does not. Expressing either recognition or appreciation does not have to cost any or much money.

However, our research clearly shows that when you teach managers how to give better recognition to employees, that employees’ performance, productivity, and engagement levels all increase. Using online recognition programs provides another vehicle to track recognition activity besides the informal face-to-face recognition. The data from recognition programs allows us to demonstrate a positive Return on Investment but only when employees truly feel recognized, appreciated, respected, and valued for who they are and what they do.

This may not fully answer our fellow subscriber’s question but at least you understand my perspective between recognition and appreciation.

Recognition Reflection: How has your organization defined recognition to make it understandable in your recognition strategy?

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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