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The Tug-of-War Between Recognition and Engagement

The Tug-of-War Between Recognition and Engagement

Employee engagement principlesprovide the opportunity to turn recognition costs into investments by puttingthe focus on the end-result



Recognition focuses on the need foremployees to feel valued and supported; employee engagement focuses on thespecific results an organization is seeking to achieve in a measurable way byaddressing all of the levers of engagement. While addressing extrinsic andintrinsic motivational drivers is important, recognition alone simply isn’tenough to foster the proactive involvement of people to achieve keyorganizational results.



While recognition programs aretraditionally viewed as a cost center allocated to human resources budgets (andfrequently subject to cuts during difficult times), employee engagement is aprofit center. The point isn’t simply to recognize people for the rightbehaviors – important enough – but also to gear everyone’s passions,capabilities and interests toward helping to achieve concrete measurable goalsfrom which all can benefit. Recognition focuses specifically on the intrinsicor extrinsic motivational drivers that, while important, aren’t alone sufficientto produce a measurable return on investment. When an organization purchasesrecognition, it’s creating a cost center based on purchasing “things” or“software,” when the opportunity of employee engagement is to create a profitcenter based on achieving specific goals through people. Employee engagementprinciples provide the opportunity to turn these costs into investments byputting the focus on the end-result: employees engaged specifically to achievecritical organizational goals, rather than on the thing, “recognition,” or evena state of “engagement” or some other happiness metric. 

This isn’t just a matter ofnomenclature; it drives the entire approach to how organizations utilizedollars allocated to traditional recognition programs. With recognition, oneconsiders the best ways to recognize people, for what actions, and considershow people will be trained to recognize one another, share information ontechnology and perhaps measure levels of engagement over time. This is all animportant component of engagement and should be implemented by experts. Thefocus on employee engagement shifts the program design process and planningprocess in a way that provides a more clear return-on-investment than thetraditional recognition model by addressing not only recognition, but thelevers most necessary in an organization’s circumstances to achieve specific,measurable goals. Those same dollars allocated to recognize people can get evenmore mileage when integrated with all of the levers needed to achieve concreteorganizational goals – not to mention the “warm and fuzzy” benefits of havingan engaged workforce.



Organizations seeking to profit fromemployee engagement in a measurable way require a different approach thatstarts specifically with what the organization is trying to accomplish in termsof increased customer or employee retention; more customer or employeereferrals; more of the behaviors or actions required to fulfill brand promises;specific actions that improve external or internal service, productivity, orwellness; etc. 

It’s almost impossible to develop aprogram to address an organization’s specific engagement goals with anypre-conceived solutions as to the type of program, award or technologyrequired. Each organization is a snowflake with its own unique goals, culture,practices and technology platforms. If the goal is simply to recognize peoplefor whatever the company wishes to recognize, there are dozens, if notthousands, of reward and technology solutions. If the goal is to focus therecognition dollars on promoting behaviors that contribute to brand equitythrough customer satisfaction or to the bottom line in other ways, then it’ssimply impossible to provide a pre-packaged solution focused solely on recognition,social or otherwise. 

Employee engagement program designrequires understanding the organization’s specific goals and its culture,history, assessment processes, learning, communications, career development,coaching and other practices already in place. Just a small investment in azero-based planning process to develop an engagement business plan yields alevel of potential return-on-investment hard to achieve in any other area ofbusiness. 

Managers of recognition programs andtheir solution providers have a big stake in the traditional focus onrecognition, rewards and technology, as this is the way business has been donefor years. For some recognition planners, employee engagement involves issuesoutside of their area of influence and therefore pose a complication they’drather avoid. For some solution providers who have invested millions in sellingrecognition and technology, it may be difficult to make the shift because oftheir roots and investments. For others, it will be an opportunity to addadditional value within their organizations or with their customers. 

But as more and more recognition andtechnology providers claim to help improve employee and customer engagement,companies can benefit by understanding what this really means. Of courserecognition engages, but do all recognition companies develop recognition orengagement programs or both? In other words, do they sell recognition or dothey sell zero-based employee engagement strategies, tactics and campaigns toachieve specific objectives utilizing whatever levers of engagement make sense?



Enterprise Engagement: The Textbook,published by the Enterprise Engagement Alliance; the Conference Board’sEngagement Institute; and Great Britain’s movement allunderline that recognition is just one element required to profit from employeeengagement strategies which, they all agree, address the following issues:

  • There is a clear engagement strategy with a return-on-investment.
  • Employees have a clear idea of the mission and the behaviors that drive success and how they can grow.
  • People are capable of doing what is asked – i.e., they have the training to do what is necessary to excel.
  • There is a clear understanding of the role of every person in fulfilling the brand promise.
  • People feel supported by the organization, have generally positive feelings when at their work and even have fun sometimes.
  • There is a sense that everyone at every level can contribute and feel empowered to help innovate and continually elevate standards.
  • Performance results are shared with all the necessary feedback so that the lessons can be used to improve performance in the future. 

Many organizations can develophighly appealing and appropriate awards for performance; others can providetechnologies that recognize people and create community. When it comes to employeeengagement, the real challenge is to develop the appropriate program leveragingyour organization’s current resources whenever necessary that achievesmeasurable results, so the program becomes a profit center. 

For organizations making the shift toemployee engagement profit centers, the best way to start is with one part ofthe organization or one specific challenge the company faces – or in the wordsofEnterprise Engagement: The Textbook contributor Gary Rhoads,Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship at the Marriott School of Businessat Brigham Young University, identifying “a dragon to slay.” 

The Distinction Between Employee Engagement and Recognition

Employee Engagement


Goal: To foster the proactive involvement of people to achieve critical, measurable organizational goals.

Goal: To create a culture in which people feel valued and supported, as well as recognized for their accomplishments.

Methods: Based on an analysis of the goals, assessment data, interviews with management and employees, and other input, create a zero-based engagement plan that integrates all of the levers necessary to accomplish a desired result, including recognition, communications, training, and innovation, ROI measurement.  

Methods: Based on the same sort of analysis employed with any program design, create a plan designed to foster a culture in which people feel valued and recognized for their contributions; this generally involves and employee engagement survey, other assessment, and management training and coaching.

Deliverables: A unique strategy with a clear return-on-investment that includes the specific engagement levers necessary, including rewards and recognition, social media, communications, learning assessment and other tools to achieve the desired goals.

Deliverables: A strategy to recognize people for their accomplishments through technology, rewards, recognition and social networking, and to measure that impact on culture and outcomes whenever possible.

Business model: Organization pays an upfront program design and set-up fee and pays the rest out of incremental dollars or other material benefits generated as a result of the program.

Business model: Organization sets aside a budget for the program, whose costs are generally based on how much people recognize one another for designated behaviors.

Technology: The organization has a choice of multiple technologies or other solutions based on its needs, but often faces the challenge of integrating all of the levers of engagement on to one platform; i.e., communications, learning, rewards and recognition ROI measurement, etc.

Technology: A wide variety of recognition solutions exist, including many with social recognition features, badges, awards, peer-to-peer recognition and more. In many cases, the company has to purchase the technology provided by the reward provider; however, several awards-neutral options exist.

Rewards and Recognition: The organization can select from multiple options based on its specific needs.

Rewards and Recognition: The organization generally has to use the rewards provided by its recognition service provider.

Return-on-Investment Measurement: The organization can track the specific return-on-investment based on the goal it is seeking to achieve in terms of sales, productivity, quality, service, retention, wellness, safety, etc.

Return-on-Investment Measurement: The organization can track usage of the program, the behaviors rewarded, the cost, the levels of employee retention and referrals, etc. and the relationship of those behaviors to organizational goals.


This article is from theRewards & Recognition Network:


"This comprehensive recognition system has resulted in new programs and processes to drive the behaviors of our employees that lead to the achievement of both individual and organizational goals."

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