How recognition drives innovation

Written by Patricia Staino

Published on Apr 15, 2020
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Employee engagement isn’t a new idea (at least it shouldn’t be). Research repeatedly has shown that employees who feel valued by their organizations perform at higher levels and stay committed to employers for the long term. They also act as brand ambassadors, spreading the good word to friends and colleagues. This makes it easier for organizations to attract new and diverse talent and may also boost a company’s overall reputation among its customers, driving up business. In one global survey, which asked job seekers to choose the most important attributes of a new job from a list of 26, the top priority for respondents was appreciation for their work, while a good salary lagged behind in the eighth spot.

Recognition’s boomerang effect

Now, research is showing that motivated, engaged employees are more likely to innovate, finding new and unexpected ways to make a company bigger, better, and faster by improving processes, product offerings, and customer interactions. It makes sense, then, that done correctly, recognition can motivate team members to realize greater productivity, think outside the box, and innovate unexpected solutions. After all, employee recognition has a huge impact on employee engagement: 78% of employees are highly engaged when they feel strong recognition from their organizations, compared to only 34% of employees who are highly engaged in companies with weak recognition.

When employees are engaged and happy, they work harder, think more creatively and strategically, and exceed expectations. More importantly, they often take on tasks and projects beyond the scope of their job description. In short, employee recognition boosts the level of innovation an organization can achieve. CEOs repeatedly rate innovation and human capital as their top two priorities—they understand the two go hand in hand. The challenge is to merge the two concerns in a way that creates forward-thinking cultures that incentivize creativity.

Remember when Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering”? We like to think if Yoda were leading an agile development team in Silicon Valley today, he’d be saying, “Recognition is the path to innovation…motivation leads to empowerment…empowerment leads to risk-taking…risk-taking leads to innovation.”

Do some rewards drive innovation better than others?

There are many achievements that warrant employee recognition: Give kudos for a project that came in under budget; honor years of service; share compliments passed on from a client; allow co-workers to praise them during team meetings and in collaboration apps; reward high marks received from customer feedback surveys. And don’t make the mistake of ONLY rewarding successes: A team who spent weeks of late nights putting together an RFP deserves some acknowledgment for their effort, even if the account is awarded to another firm. By emphasizing effort over outcome, the organization fosters workers’ continuing effort, and eventually that results in big wins.

But feel-good, warm fuzzies aren’t the only motivating factors in employee recognition. Make no mistake—some rewards more directly encourage and facilitate forward momentum. For example, some organizations reward productive employees with “free” time during the workday to pursue their own passion projects. It’s easy to see how a design engineer with a few free hours each week could brainstorm a device or app to make their job easier that eventually could be sold to customers. Or, perhaps you reward an employee who has delivered on a project that is outside of their wheelhouse with a trip to a conference that builds on that skill area. It’s likely they will bring back new knowledge that will help them expand the services they provide to your clients.

Which rewards beget greatness?

How can you recognize and reward employees in ways that will offer them time, knowledge, and motivation to create and innovate? Try one of these ideas:

  • Increase responsibility
  • Provide leadership training in the form of an off-site seminar or class
  • Reward long hours worked on a project with an extra day off
  • Offer incentives for positive client feedback or customer survey feedback
  • Promote deserving employees who contribute to the company culture as well as the bottom line, even if that means creating new positions that incorporate newly mastered skills and experiences beyond their job title
  • Share successes regularly via the company newsletter, internal message board, collaboration apps, and in team meetings to encourage collaboration between team members on diverse projects

Financial rewards may line an employee’s wallet and, of course, are always welcome, but keep in mind that the gift of more time, opportunity, or respect often results in a much greater return on investment in the long run.



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