Do your recognition programs tap into (or ignore) feelings?

Did you know the words motivation and emotion both come from the same Latin word movere (meaning “to move”)? Even if you didn’t, the connection makes immediate sense. When we feel good, we feel motivated. When we don’t, how often do we get up for that 6 a.m. run or stay up late to finish a work project? Not often!

How can your employee recognition program tap into that link between emotion and motivation for better results?

Start with your Own Emotions

If you’re positive, you can create that ripple effect (both a common metaphor and a behavioral economics term). It’s as simple as a smile. Just moving those muscles triggers the release of stress-fighters called neuropeptides. Smiles also release the hormones that help you relax. A smiling, relaxed person can create a wave of positive emotions in others.

Use Simple Words

Employees need to feel valued. If they don’t, they won’t be an employee for long. A simple, genuine “thank you” triggers a positive response, mentally and physically. When people feel appreciated, they’re much more likely to be motivated, even if it’s on a personal level (for their own boss or co-workers, for example) instead of the whole company.

“Incentives aren’t a nice to have, they’re a necessary part of any recipe for a successful workplace.”

Create the Culture

Beyond simple individual human connections—smiling, making eye contact, saying thank you—an organization needs to create a positive culture for employee retention and motivation. Even if an individual feels valued, a toxic (or mediocre) culture can sap the morale of the most motivated employee. Culture needs to be thoughtfully created and nurtured.

Is culture more important than incentives? This isn’t a one or the other; it’s a both/and solution. Think of what it takes for you to feel positive and motivated, to feel like you belong and are valued. That’s a complex mix of psychology that requires a whole recipe, not a single solution. Incentives are part of that recipe for employee success.

And points (versus cash) are more motivating. An Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) study of 1,108 employees found that:

  • 64% of respondents liked receiving redeemable points
  • 80% of respondents felt like they got a gift when they got points

Points programs work for employees because they direct them toward an actual gift versus cash. While cash sounds good, people tend to spend it on ordinary items, like gas or groceries, which wipes out the feeling of being rewarded. For the employer, points work because you can evaluate progress toward goals as points are redeemed. You can also gain valuable insights into employee preferences by seeing what they choose.

6 Keys to an Effective Incentive Program

  • Effective and clear communications: Employees can’t value what they don’t know about.
  • Something for everyone: Recognition is 100% the opposite of “one size fits all.” Make sure your program aligns with multiple interests and types of people.
  • Defined and attainable behavioral goals: Set the strategy first, and make sure you can measure the goals. ‘Making employees feel good’ is laudable, but not very measurable.
  • Reachable rewards: If it’s too much effort to earn worthwhile points, people will simply stop trying.
  • Great customer service: A brand = behavior, and what kind of brand will your organization have with employees if they can’t get help when they’re supposedly being rewarded?
  • User-friendly platform: Similar to the need for great customer service, if it’s too painful to redeem the points, people won’t even try.

Incentive Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Point inflation: Don’t use a point value that masks the advertised value.
  • A consumer experience: If the rewards process feels like a typical online shopping experience, it results in the same mindset as cash—something you use to cover costs, not treat yourself.
  • Rewarding the wrong people: Introverts make up half of any workforce, so you may not notice their role in reaching the goals. When launching the program to managers, spend time on who to reward as well as how.

A portrait of Mark Smith, the author of this article. He is a white man with square glasses and a dark suit jacket over a pink sweater.Mark Smith has been fascinated by understanding human behavior and tangible reward offerings for over 15 years. He is senior rewards director at One10 and on the board of directors for Recognition Professionals International (RPI).
This article appears in the July 2022 issue.