Creating a Workplace Culture of Feedback and Recognition

How to Identify and Resolve Toxic Workplace Behaviors

For management and HR professionals, spotting where feedback ends and recognition begins can be challenging. Yet, while they tend to overlap, they play distinct roles in shaping workplace cultures and boosting business performance.

When both strategies are effectively implemented, feedback and recognition work in harmony. While feedback for work performance helps employees to achieve professional milestones, recognition serves as positive reinforcement of that feedback. Feedback is practical and future-focused, while recognition appeals to the basic human need for acceptance and self-esteem.

Distinguishing the feedback and recognition is crucial for organizations looking to embed HR initiatives that drive real results.

In this article, we will explore the differences between feedback and recognition and discuss how businesses can effectively cater to employee needs. As we do so, we will dive into the psychology and science behind employee recognition.

What is employee feedback?

Employee feedback refers to information shared with an employee regarding their work performance, progress, and skills. It can be positive or negative, with positive feedback focused on highlighting strengths and negative feedback focused on realigning priorities and identifying areas for improvement.

The goal of employee feedback is to improve job satisfaction and performance. However, not all employee feedback is equal. Research shows that feedback must be given regularly as part of an ongoing process to generate business outcomes.

Frequent feedback is more likely to be relevant, specific, and practical — all of which are essential elements when it comes to clarifying workplace expectations and promoting professional development.

The role of feedback in employee performance

Employees prefer frequent and effective feedback, as it caters to the need for self-actualization and skill development. When organizations successfully cultivate cultures of meaningful feedback, employees are more engaged and motivated — and as a result, workplace performance is drastically improved. Research shows that employees who get stronger (timely and constructive) feedback are more likely to receive the highest possible performance appraisal rating from their supervisors.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways in which feedback impacts performance:

  • Better job clarity

Giving feedback to employees removes any uncertainty surrounding priorities and task load. It helps employees understand which areas they should focus on to achieve desired outcomes — both on a personal level and for the organization.

  • Greater autonomy

When employees know what they’re striving for, they feel more free to make decisions independently. Feedback gives employees the structure they need to take ownership of their roles and feel confident in their decision-making process.

  • Increased motivation

Positive and negative feedback both go a long way when it comes to improving motivation. Positive feedback at work boosts self-esteem and confidence, which increases motivation. Negative feedback — when constructive and practical — can also improve motivation by giving employees a framework for attaining success.

  • Higher engagement and retention

A Gallup survey found that employees who had received meaningful feedback within the past week were four times more likely to be engaged than those who hadn’t. When employees feel professional support, they feel more committed to their role and their employer — and as a result, they’re much less likely to quit.

How to Identify and Resolve Toxic Workplace Behaviors

What is employee recognition?

While employee feedback aims to foster success and changes in the future, employee recognition is focused on celebrating achievements. Recognition tends to be more public and celebratory than feedback, as it is aimed at cultivating feelings of confidence and personal accomplishment.

As with employee feedback, recognition aims to improve engagement and performance. These recognition outcomes are most pronounced when recognition is implemented as part of a formal rewards and recognition program — rather than occasional, one-off congratulatory emails. Rewards and recognition programs ensure that distinction is provided fairly and frequently, with considerate awards.

Why recognition is important for employees

Recognition caters to a core human need to feel valued and acknowledged. Everyone needs sufficient recognition to feel appreciated, confident, and motivated — and nowhere is this more relevant than in the workplace.

Employees with greater self-confidence and self-motivation are more engaged and productive, which directly impacts business outcomes. According to Deloitte, recognition increases employee engagement, productivity, and performance by 14%.

Higher retention is another significant outcome of recognition programs. Research from Gallup reveals that employees who feel they need more recognition are twice as likely to want to quit in the coming year.

In addition to its effect on employee performance, workplace recognition also plays a key role in cultivating a positive emotional culture. In workplaces with positive emotional cultures, employees feel free to share positive emotions, and they place greater emphasis on lofty character traits like empathy and compassion. Not only is this outcome valuable in and of itself, but it also generates better business outcomes — such as improved work performance, quality, and customer service.

How recognition motivates employees

As mentioned, recognition is one of the most significant drivers for workplace motivation and performance. When employee efforts are recognized, the individual becomes acutely aware of their unique role in the overall success of the organization. This sense of belonging and purpose fosters workplace pride and encourages employees to continue to excel at their jobs.

The impact of recognition is articulated by Jon Katzenbach in his book “Why Pride Matters More Than Money: The Power of the World’s Greatest Motivational Force.” He explains that experiencing pride in one’s work creates a powerful cycle or a “closed loop of energy.” First, good performance leads to success, which then leads to recognition, instilling more pride that, in turn, empowers continued high performance.

Let’s take a deeper look at the science behind why recognition strongly affects workplace motivation and performance.

How to Identify and Resolve Toxic Workplace Behaviors

The science behind employee recognition

Research informs us that recognition is a basic human need and key to healthy, successful relationships. Here are several theories that bolster the importance of recognition in the workplace:

1) Needs-based theories of motivation

According to needs-based theories of motivation, individuals are motivated to take action to meet their needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory are two such theories, and they both consider recognition to be one of the core human needs.

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines five categories of needs that humans strive to fulfill. These categories are arranged in a pyramid, with the most basic needs (like food and shelter) at the bottom and higher needs (like self-esteem and actualization) at the top. According to this theory, recognition is a higher need that is only pursued after more basic needs — like compensation — are met.

  • Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory is another important approach that has become “the most commonly used theoretical framework in job satisfaction research.” The Two-Factor Theory states that there is one set of factors that leads to job satisfaction and a separate set of factors that leads to job dissatisfaction.

Factors that lead to satisfaction are known as motivators, including recognition, achievement, and professional growth. Conversely, factors that affect job dissatisfaction are known as hygiene factors, including salary, working conditions, and company policy.

According to this theory, recognition can boost satisfaction in the workplace — but the absence of it may not directly lead to dissatisfaction.

2) Reinforcement theory

BF Skinner’s reinforcement theory of motivation states that human behavior is shaped by its consequences. Specifically, people will repeat behaviors that lead to positive outcomes and avoid behaviors that lead to negative results.

Because the reinforcement theory emphasizes the role of one’s external environment (rather than internal motivating factors) in shaping behaviors, it supports the need for organizations to make efforts to affect employee behavior. For example, providing recognition can encourage employees to continue performing well instead of falling short of their responsibilities.

3) The theories of gift giving

Providing recognition for work well done is a form of gift exchange in that both parties are giving and receiving benefits. Several theories explain why people seek to give within relationships, including:

  • Social exchange theory

The social exchange theory proposes that individual interactions are based on cost-benefit analysis. In other words, people will pursue and put more effort into relationships that maximize benefits and minimize pitfalls.

In the workplace, this means that employees are likely to be more committed and productive if they know they’re receiving support and incentives from their employer. Relationships are a two-way street, and the Social Exchange Theory emphasizes that people will reciprocate the value that’s given to them. When the value is lacking, people will pull back from the relationship — or in the workplace context, disengage.

  • Social capital

Social Exchange Theory is closely related to the concept of social capital, which refers to the value generated from being part of a network of connections. On a broader level, people will seek to be part of networks (or organizations) that provide them with benefits.

  • Gift-giving as a form of social signaling

Scientists have done a lot of research on why gift-giving is such a common phenomenon across all cultures. One explanation is that gift-giving serves as a way to signal to the other party that you’re invested in the relationship.

The connection to workplace recognition is clear. When employers provide their employees with recognition and rewards, employees feel more assured that they are valued for their unique role. Employers who prioritize recognition understand that workers who feel appreciated are likely to stick with the company and produce value.

How to Identify and Resolve Toxic Workplace Behaviors

4) Psychological safety in the workplace

Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, the term psychological safety refers to the human sense that it’s safe to be vulnerable, authentic, and take risks. In psychologically safe and emotionally healthy workplaces, individuals aren’t afraid to speak up and share new ideas or concerns.

Research demonstrates that employees recognized for their efforts are likely to report higher levels of psychological safety at work. When employees know their contributions are appreciated, they feel more empowered to continue innovating and adding value. Frequent recognition also means more communication is happening, which is a basic element of psychological safety.

5) The effect of pride on task performance

When people feel a sense of accomplishment, they’re much more likely to persevere and overcome even the most challenging tasks or obstacles.

Likewise, pride emotion is a strong motivator for work performance, which is why it’s so important that organizations take steps to instill pride within their workforce. WorkProud’s study on pride found that employees with high individual pride are ten times more likely to be highly satisfied with their jobs and 2.5 times more likely to report putting in more effort than their colleagues.

Potential pitfalls of employee recognition

Companies must approach employee recognition thoughtfully and strategically to generate positive outcomes rather. But unfortunately, the reality is that even when employers and managers have good intentions, it’s still possible to cause disappointment.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid when practicing recognition in the workplace:

  1. Favoritism and inequity
    Only recognizing top performers can demoralize and upset other workers. To avoid this mistake, it’s helpful to praise those who have made great efforts and contributions, not just those who have achieved outstanding results. Additionally, you can consider rewarding people who consistently uphold key company values.

  2. Unclear performance metrics
    Employees need to know what is worthy of being recognized. If not, their efforts may not line up with organizational goals. This is not only detrimental to the company, but it also will cause employees to be disappointed that their hard work is going unnoticed.

  3. Generic rewards
    If you give rewards as part of the recognition process, it’s important to provide several options that cater to a wide range of preferences. There should be both monetary and non-monetary options (such as time off and professional courses), as some employees may appreciate the latter more.

  4. No peer-to-peer recognition
    While recognition from managers and executives is highly valued, it shouldn’t be the only form of recognition. Encouraging employee-to-employee recognition is highly beneficial for team morale and fosters feelings of gratitude.

Provide effective feedback and recognition with WorkProud — and start seeing results

Feedback and recognition are critical for creating a positive work environment and promoting employee engagement. Feedback helps employees grow and improve, while recognition boosts morale and motivation.

Ensuring that workplace feedback and recognition are provided fairly, frequently, and strategically is no easy feat, though. That’s why we’ve developed our comprehensive solution with all the performance management tools you need to generate real results — a proud and empowered workforce and business successes. Click here to learn more about the WorkProud platform.

Related articles

Most Managers Aren’t Good at Giving Feedback: Here’s How Your Organization Can Be The Exception

Bad Feedback Can Disengage 90% of Your Workforce



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