Recognition Trumps Reward…Every Time

I recently came across a letter I received from a former employer a long long time ago. It was in recognition for my participation in a major incident and finding it again caused me to pause and reflect and ultimately has prompted me to write this short article.

On May 02nd 1981, I was a fledgling co-pilot on the Boeing 737 fleet with the Irish national carrier Aer Lingus. My duty on this day was to check-in and be close at hand in the pilots lounge for the next 8 hours. This we did to ensure all eventualities were covered and to be available to replace any other co-pilot at very short notice.

This day was to be very different for our team. Moments after checking into the lounge and settling down for a long afternoon I got a call from Crew Control to say that I was needed immediately and to hurry.  I was informed that an aircraft had been hijacked as it was approaching landing in Heathrow and I was being called up to be the co-pilot on a second aircraft being organised to follow the hijacked aircraft. This meant I was heading to Iran, the destination the hijacker had announced he wished to go.

Another aircraft was quickly made available with politicians and advisers gathered and onboarded as we flew to Shannon to pick up a person the hijacker had requested to talk to in person. Meanwhile the hijacked aircraft had landed in Le Touquet in Northern France, which was the fuel limited endurance of the aircraft that had only expected to fly to Heathrow.

My duties were focused on supporting the Captain and maintaining constant communication with air traffic control and phone patch to allow the Irish Transport Minister of the day, Albert Reynolds, to talk directly from the aircraft with the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey, back in Dublin, keeping the Irish Government and the Aer Lingus team at base up to speed on developments.

We got to Le Touquet and landed.

After a relatively short period, 8 hours, on the ground the French special forces stormed the aircraft and brought the lone hijacker under control, avoiding casualties. The passengers were checked and fed and eventually we flew back to Dublin that night and along with the passengers, politicians and advisers we all went home. I was 20 years old at the time.

Three days later I received the note pictured below.  It was from the Deputy Chief Pilot Europe (DCPE) Capt Jim Brady. Three lines, thanking me for my help during the incident, typed out, signed and posted to me.

I have valued and held on to this letter ever since and to me this was how employee recognition works.

The positive and lasting effects of being really valued and appreciated by a colleague or in this case by a senior leader, has carried me through a long career and has stuck by me always on my journey in the last 40 years. I ended up having a pretty uneventful 35 year career at Aer Lingus following this initial drama… an airline pilot you want to be uneventful!

For me this single gesture by Capt Jim Brady was an exemplary behaviour recognition, taking the time from his position of authority to reach out and individually recognise my efforts on that extraordinary day. He didn’t have to, but he did. He simply took the time to write to me personally.

There was no voucher, no bonus at the end of the month, but a note to personally thank me for doing my job on that day. This has proven many many times since, to be far more powerful and personal to me, and one which I have appreciated more than a reward might have been at that time in my fledgling career.

The note also aligned with a change in management culture at that time at Aer Lingus, aligning to a new and more modern intent that cockpit workload was to be shared across the cockpit crew. This was being done in order to maximise the effectiveness of the team and on this day the Captain, being the most senior crew member, was allowed to share many of their tasks and responsibilities, so that they could devote themselves to the tasks and experience that allowed them to perform most effectively.

So powerful was this note of recognition that I stapled it into my pilots log book almost 40 years ago, as a permanent reminder that good behaviours should be recognised and lauded and as a reminder that I was grateful at the time for this personal touch. Also as a reminder to me to adopt the same attitude to my peers and colleagues throughout my thirty five years as a pilot.

I don’t fly any more but as CEO at Wrkit, employee recognition is central to my effectiveness as a leader and a key component to our employee engagement portal. Every week I encourage our team and leaders to recognise each other through the work we do together. It is an important part of our culture and our Wrkit behaviours. Peer to peer recognition is statistically proven to have a positive effect on employee performance, and is even more engaging then top-down recognition. Hats off to Capt Jim Brady in 1981 for having the vision and the courage as a leader to reach out with this brief but valued letter of recognition and for setting me on the path to emulate these behaviours; to be a leader that encourages employee recognition and to be able to provide organisations with the tools available for them to do the same. If you can, socialise the recognitions in your company whenever you can, because three shorts sentences really can go a long long way.

Cultivating Purpose Through Recognition

Having a sense of purpose at work is a fundamental driver of motivation. Purpose (or lack thereof) has a direct and significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Furthermore, the millennial workforce is putting an increasing emphasis on their desire for meaningful work, with a recent Harvard Business Review article stating that 9 out of 10 employees would be willing to earn less money for more meaningful work. As the war for talent heightens, satisfying the personal objectives of talent by facilitating meaningful work will be key to business success across all industries. A challenge however, lies in the variance of perceived purpose associated with different jobs. For example, due to the nature of their work, a medical professional saving lives will likely have a greater internalised sense of purpose that an assembly line worker.  

For organisations, there is a need to develop comprehensive programmes which increase the meaningfulness of work for employees at every level. When the task itself does not inspire purpose, it is important to cultivate a sense of meaning through company practices and policies. One way to do this is through effectively utilising recognition programmes, coupling company values with peer and manager recognitions. Typically, employees who say they feel appreciated have greater job satisfaction and are less likely to leave their job than those who do not. Moreover, industry research has shown that companies which foster a culture of recognition outperform those that do not. Showing appreciation for individual contributions can help increase the perceived social worth among peers, enhancing the meaningfulness and value of work for employees.

There are certain criteria a recognition programme should satisfy in order to have the highest impact.  

  1. Leadership backing – this is a standard requirement for the success of any new programmes. Company leaders need to embody the behaviour they want to see, making a point of recognising contributions throughout the organisation. The culture needs to be right for a recognition programme to enhance the meaningfulness of work and this should be driven by senior management.
  2. Connect to company values – recognising behaviours which align to company values helps reinforce the overall business objective, reaffirming for employees how they should seek to contribute to the company.
  3. Make it personal and meaningful – relevance promotes interest and motivation. Provide guidelines for delivering meaningful recognitions. For example, Wrkit Recognition allows the recogniser to choose from a list of pre-set company values as determined by the organisation, choose the type of recognition i.e. well done or great job (these are also set by the organisation) and write a personal note to the person they are recognising.
  4. Publicise praise – sharing stories of success increases the affect on social worth, further allowing peers to verbally congratulate and recognise one another. Recognition software often includes a newsfeed style notice board which is great for global or remote teams.
  5. Socialise your celebrations –create social occasions to celebrate major business achievements. It is rare that business achievements are accomplished by one individual, make sure that all contributors or contributing departments are named and celebrated.

There are of course several internal and external factors which influence how meaningful an individual perceives their work to be. Beyond organisational level practices, managers play a key role in cultivating a sense of purpose within their team. By ensuring every employee knows precisely how their contributions impact the overall outcomes of the business (and/or positively impact society), by offering regular feedback, and by mentoring individuals to achieve their career goals managers can engender greater meaning for others.

Author: Sara Glynn – Marketing & Customer Success Manager @Wrkit

Wrkit specialise in the creation of better healthier working environments. The Wrkit platform connects global, remote and local teams through five modules; Surveys, Recognition, POWR, Learning and Savings.

Speak to an Engagement Specialist today –


Adam M. Grant. (2008). The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational, Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 93, 108-124

The psychology of workplace recognition

Research has found that recognition in the workplace has a huge impact on employee engagement, retention, motivation, and satisfaction, as well as on feelings of trust and belonging in the workplace. It also effects how employees view their role and their work, with those who have experienced recognition and reward feeling more appreciated and happier in the workplace, feeling prouder of their work, having stronger employee relationships, and having more favourable attitudes towards their company. It’s quite clear that workplace appreciation and gratitude can have a host of beneficial impacts for the workplace – so what are the psychological mechanisms that are in play when it comes to the positive impacts of employee recognition? And what can companies do to ensure that their workforce feels valued and recognised?

The impact of gratitude

One of the most important factors involved in the beneficial impacts of workplace recognition is gratitude, and the psychological effects that gratitude has on us. When we are shown appreciation and gratitude, the hypothalamus area of the brain is activated, and the neurotransmitter dopamine is released – this neurotransmitter is often known as the “reward” neurotransmitter, as it feels good, and it results in us repeating the actions that result in its release. Therefore, when we are shown gratitude, in engages our brain in a virtuous cycle, that makes us re-engage in those behaviours which elicit gratitude and release dopamine.

These dopamine boosts not only feel good, but they also improve sleep habits, increase metabolism, and reduce stress. Therefore, workplace recognition is going to have a beneficial impact on employee well-being and health, which will in turn have positive knock-on effects in terms of employee engagement and motivation.

Furthermore, showing recognition and appreciation to colleagues encourages more social and prosocial interaction. So when employees are shown gratitude in the workplace, they are more likely to spread their positive feelings with their peers, through altruistic and helpful acts – and as acts of kindness in the workplace have been shown to increase work performance and productivity, this is another example of the potential positive impact of implementing a culture of recognition and appreciation in an organisation.

Increasing workplace recognition

Despite the well-established positive effects of workplace recognition, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that only 51% of working Americans felt valued by their employers, while 36% reported receiving no form of recognition in the past 12 months. So it would appear that many employers are not taking advantage of the benefits that workplace recognition and reward can deliver – but there are some simple steps that can be taken, in order to improve employee recognition, and to make it a priority in the workplace:

  • Make it personal: there are many different ways in which a employee can be rewarded for their hard work, but the most important thing is that the employee is shown gratitude for their individual contribution – there is a big difference between a company-wide email of appreciation sent to everyone involved in a project, compared to an individually-tailored card, email, note, or meeting, outlining the specific role that an individual has played in achieving a positive outcome for the organisation.
  • Facilitate peer-to-peer recognition: acknowledgements from colleagues can be just as valued, if not more valued, than recognition from management. Peer-to-peer recognition programmes can be introduced, which encourage co-workers to demonstrate gratitude and appreciation towards one another – perhaps through one-on-one meetings, group sessions, or feedback forms.
  • Do some research and investigation: not all of your workforce will value the same types of recognition. You can learn about what the individual preferences of your employees are through surveys and meetings, and you can therefore find out what types of incentives might motivate the different individuals in the organisation.
  • Build recognition skills: familiarise yourself with the characteristics of effective recognition and how to apply them, by talking to HR experts, CEOs, or organisational psychologists – get to know the different types of effective rewards, and how best to implement them in the workplace.
  • Make it fun: aside from the more standard incentives and rewards, such as gift cards and bonuses, employees will also appreciate more creative and fun methods of recognition, which don’t have to involve much expense. A rotating trophy or plaque for the best team-player, a fun day out for a whole team, or the renting of a karaoke machine/chocolate fountain are some fun examples, which will demonstrate to employees that time and consideration has gone into making sure that they are acknowledged and shown appreciation.


Guest Author: Counseling Psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Fennel



Recognition “Trumps” Rewards

As employees, we love to be appreciated. Even those of us who love our job for what it is, we still like to get that pat on the back every so often to acknowledge that we’re doing it well. The World Health Organisation says that this recognition is “one of the most important factors which increases motivation and satisfaction”. Studies repeatedly show that praise and feedback have a greater impact on employee performance than pay-by-performance incentives, yet a 2015 study published by Achievers found that 57% of employees surveyed didn’t feel as though their progress at work had been recognised. In an increasingly competitive market, establishing a progressive culture and strong employer brand is vital to attracting and retaining talent. According to Forbes, companies which scored in the top 20% for building a “recognition-rich culture” had a 31% lower voluntary turnover rate than those who didn’t. On the other side of this, a lack of recognition will reduce productivity, diminish performance and negatively impact employee engagement.

Historically, manager-to-peer recognition has been considered the most impactful, however, with changing corporate dynamics and a more cross-functional workforce, it is now considered that peer-to-peer recognition has a greater effect on employee performance. That’s not to say organisations should choose one over the other; any good recognition and rewards (R&R) software will facilitate multiple options, as well as a host of other features to help organisations enhance their culture. Here are the top six features you should keep an eye out for in an R&R software:

Top R&R features and why they matter

1. Setting Company Values & Behaviours

Is the most important one! It’s the primary feature which allows employers to strategically support the ethos and values of their organisation. Enhancing culture is a fundamental function of workplace recognition programmes, but without an ability to define company values, the benefit is almost obsolete. Not all R&R providers offer this feature, so it is worth taking the time to research who does and how it works.

2. Employee-to-Employee Recognition

Even though there is significant research to indicate that peer-to-peer recognition has a positive impact on performance, this capability is lacking from most R&R software on the market. Facilitating peers to thank one another creates a culture of teamwork.

3. Manager-to-Employee Recognition

A fundamental feature, and one which comes as an industry standard. Allowing managers to recognise positive contribution for specific tasks and projects improves moral and supports the work culture of progressive companies.

4. Rewards

Not all providers offer a reward facility, and only a handful offer peer-to-peer rewards. Rewarding is a great feature, but be sure the software you choose includes ‘manager controls’, so reward values are set by management and approved by team leaders. This control does not come as standard from most providers but is important to maintain fair play. We’ve all heard horror stories around this type of feature so take the time to understand how the reward process works. Be sure to also check what rewards will be available; there’s no point having a reward catalogue that doesn’t appeal to your employees.

5. Social feed

Making employee recognitions (and rewards) visible company-wide reinforces the associated psychological benefits. A handful of providers offer this; some can even facilitate liking and commenting to encourage further peer-to-peer interaction.

6. Analytics

Any R&R software worth its salt should make the lives of HR managers easier by facilitating comprehensive reporting and analytics. Company-wide data and team drill downs should help employers to see trends and identify values or behaviours which are not being supported by employee contribution and provide vital data for improved talent management.

The list goes on. Your R&R program could also include niceties such as being company branded, mobile optimised, or cloud hosted, and with varying designs and user experiences. Take the time to research which suppliers offer the most comprehensive solution!

To find out about Wrkit Recognition & Rewards speak to our team today –

Author – Peter Jenkinson, Director of Business Development, Wrkit.