These words are often interchangeably used. However, both are very different and important. It is important for leaders to understand this difference for their teams to grow and for organizations to ensure cultures of engagement, loyalty, and high performance.
Recognition is giving positive feedback based on one’s results or performance. It’s done either formally or informally. An award, a bonus, a promotion or a raise are formal ways of recognition. While a verbal thank you or a handwritten note are informal ways. All of these methods are meaningful if done in a timely and genuine way. They’re also motivating and exciting since everyone wants their good work to be applauded.
There are some limitations to recognition:
- It’s performance-based, so it’s conditional
- It’s based on the past, so it’s about what people have already done.
- It’s scarce. There’s a limited amount of recognition to go around — everyone can’t get a bonus or be mentioned by name in a memo — and it can be stressful when many people are vying for a finite amount of praise.
- It comes from the top. Many organizations have set up programs that allow peers to highlight each other’s efforts, but the major forms of recognition (promotions, raises, and so on) are usually given by senior leaders.
While recognition including monetary compensation could be great, researchers from the London School of Economics found that financial incentives can backfire at times for motivating employees. They stated that “these incentives may reduce an employee’s natural inclination to complete a task and derive pleasure from doing so.”
On the other hand, Appreciation is about acknowledging a person’s inherent value. The point isn’t their accomplishments. It’s their worth as a colleague and a human being.
In simple terms, recognition is about what people do; appreciation is about who they are.
Understanding the difference is important as they are given for different reasons. Even when people succeed, inevitably there will be failures and challenges along the way; depending on the project, there may not even be tangible results to point to. If you focus solely on praising positive outcomes, on recognition, you miss out on lots of opportunities to connect with and support your team members — to appreciate them.
Oprah Winfrey spoke some very powerful words at Harvard a few years ago:
I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience …The common denominator that I found in every single interview is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: “Was that OK?” I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyoncé in all of her Beyoncé-ness….[We] all want to know one thing: “Was that OK?” “Did you hear me?” “Do you see me?” “Did what I say mean anything to you?”
Oprah was talking about appreciation. And when we show appreciation to our colleagues, customers, managers, and partners, we’re more likely to build trust and connect.
Here are a few simple ways to show appreciation for those around you:
- Listen. One of the best things you can do for the people you work with is also one of the simplest: Put down your phone, turn away from your computer, and genuinely listen to them.
- Tell people what you value about them. Doing this proactively — not because someone did something great or because you want something from them — is an incredibly powerful gift. It can positively affect how your colleagues feel about themselves, your relationship with them, and the culture of the team.
- Check-in. There’s a quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s a great reminder. Check in with the people you work with. Asking how they’re doing (and meaning it) and what they’re challenged by right now can show them that you care.
It is more important for a manager to show appreciation for employees. In Glassdoor’s Employee Appreciation Survey, 53% of people said feeling more appreciation from their boss would help them stay longer at their company — even though 68% said their boss already shows them enough appreciation. More is better.
Great leaders have to successfully focus on and cultivate both appreciation and recognition. And all of us benefit from understanding this distinction in business (and in life). Recognition is appropriate and necessary when it’s earned and deserved. Appreciation, however, is important all the time.