Although most people agree that you get what you give, you wouldn't know it if you spoke with many managers about recognition. As part of my doctoral requirements, I set out to explore why, and what conditions enable or inhibit the use of recognition in organizations. This is the second of a two-part series (see “No Thanks” in September CMI, p. 24, or on

The underlying truth is simple: Without top management's support, recognition programs and activities are usually considered optional and often fail. With management support, they thrive.

Here are five things you can do to persuade top management in your organization that employee recognition is important and to explain the role they can play in making it an integral part of the culture:

Talk to Them on Their Own Terms

No surprise here: The best way to influence top management is to clearly demonstrate how a recognition program will affect the bottom line. This is especially true if you have a preponderance of “old line” managers who feel that giving employees a weekly paycheck is reward enough in itself.

Here are a few hard numbers from companies that have quantified the results of their recognition programs:

Amoco saved $18.8 million in two years at a single plant by using various gift programs and contests.

The Travel Related Services division of American Express attributed a 500 percent increase in net income over 11 years (a return on investment of 28 percent) in part to its recognition programs, including its Great Performers poster campaign.

American Airlines, using a points-for-merchandise recognition program, was able to purchase a new airplane with $50 million in savings from employee suggestions.

Share Studies & Statistics

Always cite research and statistics to add credibility to your proposal. Also include industry best practices and any information you can find on how your organization's competition is recognizing and rewarding employees.

Among the more recent studies on the subject:

In recent surveys of American workers, 63 percent of respondents agreed that most people would like more recognition for their work. The same percentage ranked “a pat on the back” as a meaningful incentive.

A Robert Half International study found that the number one reason people left their jobs was “a lack of praise and recognition.”

According to the People, Pay, and Performance study by the American Productivity Center in Houston, it generally takes 5 percent to 8 percent of an employee's salary to change behavior if the reward is cash, as compared with approximately 4 percent of the employee's salary if the reward is noncash.

Create a Pilot Program

One of the best ways to build momentum for your recognition efforts is by initiating a pilot program and developing your own results data. This has the advantage of being done with your own employees, performance goals, culture, competitive pressures, and managers.

Be sure to carefully select positive, proactive participants and to closely monitor what is done to increase the chances of favorable results. Create a motivation baseline by surveying target employees to be able to demonstrate improvement against desired goals. Track anecdotal success stories and begin a case for broader implementation.

The best pilot programs don't require any funds, but instead use creative, no-cost recognition, such as personal and written thanks, public praise, morale-building meetings, and information sessions. You'll be surprised at how much you can do with so little.

Involve Top Managers

Regardless of how you sell management on recognition, you need to get them to practice it. Only then will they send the message to all the organization's managers that recognition is important. It's not enough to have their verbal approval: Employees believe more of what they see than what they hear.

Make Them Look Good

Create opportunities for management to look good when they recognize others. Let them choose their level of involvement. For example, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Eldersburg, Md., has a simple, but successful, way to personally involve top management in their recognition program: Hidetoshi Yajima, president and CEO, invites outstanding performers to serve as special assistant for two weeks.

Other ideas? You might suggest that top management host a recognition kickoff meeting presenting the top individual or group recognition awards; introduce recognition committee members at a company meeting; or point out recognition opportunities to other managers, perhaps voted on by all employees.

Also, allow top managers to announce recognition program successes to the organization when a milestone is achieved; thank them in a letter from the employees and/or the recognition committee; or create a special top manager's recognition award.

As Larry Colin, President of Colin Service Systems in White Plains, N.Y., put it: “We one day realized that our largest asset was our work force — and that our growth would come from asset appreciation.” Get your upper managers to appreciate your employee assets — and their value to your company will only grow.

For the CEO

The CEO sets the tone. Here are three important tips for managers who want to become better motivators:

  1. FIND OUT WHAT YOUR EMPLOYEES WANT. Don't assume you know — Often, what motivates you will differ from what motivates your people. By unilaterally deciding what to give employees, you run the risk of missing the motivational mark. Involve them in determining what would be the best reward.

  2. REALIZE THAT ONE TYPE OF RECOGNITION NO LONGER FITS ALLWhat you pay your employees, or having a few traditional (and predictable) recognition activities — or even a formal recognition program — is not enough today. Regularly update your company's recognition programs to make them more exciting and relevant to employees' needs.

  3. LEAD BY EXAMPLE — MODEL THE BEHAVIOR YOU EXPECT OTHERS TO FOLLOW. Don't expect the human resources department to drive the recognition program; rather, make motivation of people a part of every manager's job — including your own. For example, Hyler Bracey, president of The Atlanta Consulting Group, knew he wanted to praise employees more, but found that his good intentions did not often translate to daily behavior. To remember, he started putting five coins in his jacket pocket each morning. He transferred a coin to another pocket each time he gave positive feedback to an employee. Within a few weeks, the new habit had taken hold, and praising employees became second nature to him. Says Bracey: “Praising employees truly works. There's so much more energy in a workplace where praise has become ingrained in the manager.”

Bob Nelson

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego, and author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, 1001 Ways to Energize Employees and 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work (all published by Workman Publishing); he also co-wrote Managing For Dummies (published by Hungry Minds Inc.).

He is publisher of Bob Nelson's “Rewarding Employees” newsletter and writes the “Motivation Matters” column for Corporate Meetings & Incentives. His next book, Please Don't Just Do What I Tell You! Do What Needs to Be Done: Every Employee's Guide to Making Work More Rewarding, is due out this fall from Hyperion.

This two-part series is based on Bob Nelson's three-year doctoral study, “Factors that Encourage or Inhibit the Use of Non-Monetary Recognition by U.S. Managers,” which he completed in spring 2001 as part of his requirements for his PhD in management from The Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management Center of Claremont Graduate University, Los Angeles.

For more information or to obtain a copy of Nelson's dissertation, call (800) 575-5521, or check out

Common Excuses for Not Using Recognition

  • “I shouldn't have to thank employees for doing the job they were hired to do.”

  • “I'm just too busy.”

  • “My employees know I value them — I don't have to tell them so.”

  • “If I recognize my employees, they're likely to take advantage of me.”

  • “My employees are well-paid enough already.”

  • “If I frequently recognize employees, the activity will come to lose its meaning.”