by Matt Alderton | June 07, 2018
"You can give recognition to someone without an award, but you should never give someone an award without recognition."

That's the mantra at Rideau Recognition Solutions, a Montreal-based rewards and recognition company that specializes in web-based incentive management solutions. Established in 1912, it's had more than a century to analyze what makes employees tick. What it has observed in that time is that presentation often drives performance. Or, put another way: It's not always what rewards they receive that motivates employees; just as frequently, it's how those rewards are given to them.

"To be honest, presentation is probably more important than the award itself," says John Mills, Rideau's executive vice president of business development. "We've heard horror stories from employees where something just shows up on their desk in the morning. They don't know who it's from. There's no praise from anyone. Nobody knows they've won it. Their manager hasn't even stopped by their desk to congratulate them. Awards don't work without the proper recognition behind them."

For that reason, Rideau has developed a training program through which it helps its clients teach and develop "recognition skills." Following are five things leaders who participate in the program learn to avoid when presenting awards to their staff:

Avoid nondescript recognition

One of the biggest mistakes managers can make, according to Mills, is being vague or general about recognition. When you give employees awards, he says, you should be specific and explicit about why they're receiving it.

Explains Mills: "A lot of companies now are including recognition as part of their performance evaluations. So you want to be specific and say, 'You provided great customer service because "X," and the feedback from the client was "Y," and we want to recognize you for that behavior.'"

What's more, being specific about achievements makes it more likely that an award recipient's peers will emulate his or her high-performance behavior. "Typically, most recognition programs are tied around the values of the organization or certain missions they have at certain times of the year, whether it be customer service or sales or innovation," Mills continues. "If you are specific about what behaviors are being recognized -- about what the employee did that went above and beyond -- then people will say, 'Well OK, that makes sense; now I know what I need to do in order to be recognized like that.' That's really important, because when they're done well these types of programs create happier employees, and happy employees typically make for happy clients and better profits."

Avoid recognizing employees in a vacuum

Even when you're presenting an individual award, you should treat recognition like a team sport, according to Mills.

"Let's look at nomination programs, for example," he says. "Let's say you've done a great job so I want to nominate you for a recognition award. In our system, and in a lot of systems, there's some sort of approval process. I'll nominate you through the system, your manager will get notified that you've been nominated for an award, and then he or she will say, 'Yes, I think this person did a great job and it warrants this level of recognition.' Once it's approved, the company will decide when you, as the recipient, will be notified that you've received this particular award. Finally, there's usually some sort of notification -- an e-card, perhaps -- that goes to the employee saying, 'Congratulations, you've received an award.'The nice thing about that is that you have the opportunity to allow folks to comment on the award and comment on the e-card. Our system has a social platform where everyone in the company can see you've won an award." 

Broadcasting awards to the entire company benefits both recipients and their peers. "When you're working in a company you're part of a team. No one individual typically is bigger than the team, so I think it's appropriate that the people you're working with should know that you've been recognized. You're not alone on that ship, so the more folks who know you've been recognized the better," Mills continues. "At the same time, it also gives motivation to other folks within the organization to do well. If you've done a great job and you deserve to be recognized, other folks in the organization will see that and think, 'If I keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing, maybe I'll be recognized as well.'"

Avoid undermining the award

Because social recognition is so powerful, it's a good idea to acknowledge award recipients in front of their peers -- during a daily huddle, for example, or a weekly staff meeting. But when you do, be mindful that the words you speak reinforce the award rather than detract from it.

"When you do that presentation, don't make light of the award. It's not time to tell off-color jokes and make fun," Mills says. "Instead, try to be a bit serious about the achievement and why you're recognizing that individual. Because you want it to be a positive and memorable experience for the recipient. Don't say, 'I never thought you'd get this, but here you go.' Or if it's a service award, don't say, 'I can't believe you made it to 15 years; when you first started I thought you'd make it a week.' You want to make sure the recognition is specific, concise, and sincere.

Avoid treating everyone the same

For golfers, new golf clubs can be a powerful reward. For everyone else, the gesture falls flat. The same is true of award presentations. Although social recognition can be extremely effective for extroverts who enjoy attention, it can be the opposite for introverts who don't. Presentations must therefore be personalized in substance and in style to each individual award recipient.

"We've built it into our recognition systems that employees when they come into an organization are able to fill out a profile that tells their managers the ways they like to be recognized," Mills says. "It's more important than ever to know this kind of information because this is probably the first time in business where we have had so many generations in the workforce at the same time. We have baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and even younger than that all working alongside one another, and they all like to be recognized in different ways. So you have to know your audience, so to speak, and build your program around what will make everyone happy."

Avoid underestimating your impact

Finally, it's as important to respect recognition as it is to give it, according to Mills, who says managers who genuinely appreciate the value of recognition are primed to deliver it in ways that have positive impact for employees, employers, and even society at large.

"As a child you're often recognized, and that makes you do things better. But for whatever reason, that's been lost over time. We don't recognize people as much as we used to. Maybe we feel we're not supposed to be cheerleaders anymore for folks when they're adults. I think it's kind of a lost art," Mills concludes. "By teaching people recognition skills, we're training them to not only be better business leaders, but also better people. If you're taught how to recognize people at work, maybe you'll say 'great job' and 'thanks for what you do' when you're at Starbucks and someone makes your coffee perfectly. I'm not being grandiose about it, but I think our programs and our industry have a chance to really influence society for the better."