ATD Blog

Why Most Employee Recognition Doesn’t Work

Thursday, February 9, 2017

As we have traveled across the country, working with various businesses and organizations, we’ve had the privilege to interact with HR professionals and corporate trainers. We initially were surprised to hear both professionals and frontline workers report that the vast majority of employee recognition programs aren't working. They generally are not having a positive impact on employees or workplace morale. And, in many cases, the ways that most employee recognition programs are done are actually creating negative reactions among team members. 

Why? Because, as it is generally implemented, recognition is very different from authentic appreciation. Here is what we found: 

Recognition is largely about behavior. "Catch them doing what you want and recognize it," the recognition books say. The sole focus is on the employee's behavior and the manager's behavior (observe and reinforce). 

The primary emphasis of recognition is improving performance. The goal is for employees to do more (or better quality) work. The focus is on what is good for the company or the manager (who looks good when the team performs well). 

The relational direction of recognition is top down. Recognition comes from the administration, managers, and supervisors. It is occasionally communicated peer to peer, but rarely from worker to supervisor or manager. 

Recognition is really an organizational function. And, as a result, recognition at its foundation feels impersonal and contrived, and is rarely experienced as a genuine expression of appreciation for the team member as a person. 

Conversely, authentic appreciation has a very different feel and quality: 


Appreciation focuses on performance plus the character qualities of the team member and the person’s intrinsic value. As a result, team members can be valued and receive appreciation even when they don't perform well. 

Appreciation has dual objectives: to improve performance but also to support and encourage the person. Team members often need a word or action of encouragement, especially when they aren't performing at their best because of other issues going on in their lives. 

The goal of appreciation is what is good for the company and what is good for the person. If a colleague communicates authentic appreciation, it is based in a foundational concern for the individual (which may mean helping the person find a position that is a better match for her than her current role). 

Appreciation requires more than behavior; it requires "heart attitude." This is really the difficult part of appreciation—it has to be genuine. You can't fake it. 


Appreciation can be communicated in any direction. One of the exciting lessons I've learned is that colleagues want to know how to encourage and support one another. Appreciation can be expressed from anyone to anyone else in the organization. 

Appreciation is based in a person-to-person relationship. We don't believe that an organization (an entity) can truly appreciate an employee or team member. That is why so many employees react to recognition programs—they don't feel real.

Employee recognition programs work well when they are used for the purpose for which they were originally designed—to recognize and reward achieving performance goals. Recognition, however, does not work well when organizations try to use large organizational programs to make employees feel valued individually. In fact, this often creates negative backlash within the organization (sarcasm and resentment).

Authentic appreciation communicated personally in ways that are meaningful to the recipient is what helps team members feel truly valued. Use the correct tool for the right purpose and you will experience positive results!

About the Author

Paul White is a psychologist, author, speaker, and president of Appreciation at Work. He is the co-author of three books, including The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and he has shared his expertise with Bloomberg Businessweek,,,, Fast Company,, Huffington Post LIVE, U.S. News & World Report, and Yahoo! Finance.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.