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Gallup Podcast
How (and How Not) to Recognize Employees
Gallup Podcast

How (and How Not) to Recognize Employees

Why is recognition at work so important -- and how does it benefit employees and organizations alike? Isha Vicaria, a social psychologist and people data analyst at Workhuman, joins the podcast to talk about how employers can create a thriving workplace and team environment through recognition.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. In this episode, we dig deeper into how our experiences in the workplace can make or break our overall human experiences beyond the office. Dr. Isha Vicaria is a social psychologist and researcher on the Workhuman IQ team. Isha, great to have you on the podcast.

Isha Vicaria 00:27
Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Mohamed Younis 00:29
Let's start with telling us a little bit about what is Workhuman?

Isha Vicaria 00:32
Sure, so Workhuman offers a cloud solution for HR. We offer an employee recognition platform where employees can recognize each other for good work, as well as work milestones like promotions and service anniversaries. We also have a continuous-performance development tool and, and other great products including a survey platform, but the main product that I work with is employee recognition, and we'll talk all about that today.

Mohamed Younis 01:01
What is -- from your perspective -- great employee recognition? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Why does it matter? As I ask this, I think about random recognition efforts that I've been exposed to. Some of them were like really impactful; some of them were just like totally cheesy and nobody really believed in them. So take us at the top: What is recognition? Why is it so important? And how do we do it well?

Isha Vicaria 01:26
Yeah, so let's start with, what is recognition and why is it so important? So recognition is valuing and viewing the human being behind an achievement. So there's an element of gratitude there; there's an element of congratulations there. It's really bringing the human element to the forefront. And why it's important -- you know, I was thinking about this, and I kind of tied it back to when I taught a Psychology 101 course. And I used to say to the nonmajors in the class, why is it important to study psychology? Well, whether you're going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a statistician, you're gonna be working with people. So understanding psychology and some basic psychology elements is going to be helpful no matter what. And I tie that to recognition because behind every role, behind every job title there's a human doing that. And bringing the human experience to work just unites us all and really emphasizes how we're all, at the end of the day, people.

Mohamed Younis 02:27
It's really about understanding and recognizing the human being behind the work. It's going beyond just saying, "Mohamed is our No. 1, like, jelly bean counter for the money." It's really trying to understand like, who is Mohamed and what makes them go and why are they passionate about doing the work they do?

Isha Vicaria 02:47
Right. Exactly. And, and especially recently, with the pandemic, it's so hard to separate who you are as a person and what you're going through from work, because we spend so much of our time at work. And it's sometimes, especially when working remote, impossible to separate little kids coming onto the screen or you know responsibilities that take you away from what you're working on.

Mohamed Younis 03:13
I'm a sociologist at heart and by training. So I always think about, like, the sociological more than the psychological. But it really reminds me of this idea of alienation, like, in the modern working environment, and how this is really a way to break through that. You know, even if I don't work at a factory, I'm not just part of a process, and I'm not just here to you know, push these buttons and have this knowledge that I can insert in this or that part of the process on my team. I'm really a person. And everybody comes to the work from a completely different walk of life, different angle, different experience. You really stress this idea in your work about this two-way street of recognition. It's not just about the employee and what the person being recognized can get out of it, but really what the organization that is doing the recognizing also gets out of that. Tell us about that.

Isha Vicaria 04:05
The really amazing thing about recognition and, and research on recognition in the workplace is that there's an individual-level component to it. There are great outcomes for employees at an individual level when they are recognized. And we see this in this report that we just released. There are increased levels of connection, increased levels of engagement, lower burnout, lower stress and all these wonderful positive things for an individual. The even greater thing is that this extends beyond the individual to the organization, and we're talking about business impact now. So we can imagine that happy people are more likely to be productive. They're more likely to be engaged. They're more likely to be brand ambassadors. They're more likely to spill over the positive connotations of the workplace to others, which has impact there. But some of the research that I've been a part of for our customers looks at the impact of recognition in the metrics that matter the most to their organization, and even things you wouldn't imagine that aren't directly related to being recognized at an individual level.

Isha Vicaria 05:13
So, for example, we've seen that a culture of recognition can extend beyond just engagement and even produce safety outcomes. In collaboration with a manufacturing plant, we saw that having an award around safety and recognizing preventable safety behaviors -- find and fix and, and replace different parts -- these different programs led to a reduction in total recordable injury rate and other safety metrics for this manufacturing plant. So we're not even talking at the exchange of the thanks or the recognition; we're talking about outcomes, external outcomes for the business. And, relatedly, we saw with a hospital group that when you have hospital units engaged in a culture of recognition where employees feel recognized for the good work that they do, this spills over into patient satisfaction. Hospital units with higher rates of employees being recognized had higher patient satisfaction. We even see this with customer service ratings. So it just, it goes beyond the productivity and HR and, and talent type metrics and spills over to the business.

Mohamed Younis 06:25
And it's really interesting the diversity of examples you gave, like, you can pick walks of life that are more different than the ones you mentioned. And in the end, what unites them is, like, what you said to your students, it's that human factor, right? That psychological need as human animals that we have when we do really hard things and bring a lot of commitment and persevere through challenges, which comes with, with any job or really any undertaking that you're gonna embark on with other people.

Isha Vicaria 06:55

Mohamed Younis 06:56
As a -- go for it.

Isha Vicaria 06:57
And I'm glad, I'm glad you mentioned human need, because I'd love to get back into the psychology of, of why recognition is so important. When you think about the emotion of gratitude and where it came from, it really stemmed from a human need to collaborate and come together and build communities and reciprocity. You know, I'm gonna help you and you help me, and soon we're cooperating and we're protecting each other. And you can extend this basic premise to today in the workplace. If I see you helping others or thanking others, I'm not only gonna think you're a nice person, I'm gonna want to work with you. And I'm gonna want to extend invitations for you to join what I'm working on.

Mohamed Younis 07:45
Absolutely. And I mean, we've literally like all seen this unfold around us and have felt it. Like what about favorites? Sometimes recognition can really be done poorly and drive a lot of, like, jealousy on teams or feelings of, you know, that person always gets credit; I don't get credit. Is there a kind of a dark side to this if it's not done properly?

Isha Vicaria 08:07
I love that you mentioned that, because in our report, we have five pillars that really emphasize impactful recognition, and one of those is equitable. It's important for recognition to be equally distributed. And because, just as we were talking about recognition being a visible component to cooperation and cohesion, I notice when I'm not being recognized as equally as my colleagues. So that's why it's important to extend equally.

Mohamed Younis 08:39
It's also really interesting to think about recognizing, but also personalizing, so it's not like a participation award, which I used to get because my mom made me go to school every day. Like, you know, it's like an attendance award. It's, and people waiting their turn for recognition. It's really an art and a challenge to do it in a way that feels personal, feels fair, feels relevant to like the team's mission. It's not just like, "Wow, Mohamed is amazing," but they did this thing that helped us. Give us some tips on how do you create a thriving team environment that incorporates recognition? What are the best practices you've seen out there?

Isha Vicaria 09:18
I'm going to say our five pillars because, because they're, they're so important, they're all-encompassing. But then I'll pepper in a couple of my personal experiences and what I take away from them. So to really drive impact with recognition, we like to say that the recognition is fulfilling. And this gets at like the frequency, how often, but also the right amount for the role in the work that gets done. That recognition is authentic, it's genuine. It's not just, as you were saying, a generic "Thank you." It's equitable, like we were talking about. It's distributed equally for the work and different people. It's embedded in the culture. So this is a big one, because the recognition that we're talking about -- the really impactful recognition that leads to cultures of gratitude -- is not a one-off $1,000 at the end of the year spot bonus: "Thanks. You did this really big project." It's embedded throughout the year, throughout the employee's experience. It's part of the culture, and it's normalized. It shouldn't feel weird to be thanked; it should be a given that your good work is valued. And then, finally, as you said, it's personalized. It's specific to your experience and your contributions -- not, as I said, a generic thank you; that's not going to get you anywhere.

Mohamed Younis 10:37
On that personal note, let me ask you as just a human, not as Dr. Vicaria, who does this professionally -- How do you like to be recognized at work? Like when has it been great for you and not so great?

Isha Vicaria 10:49
I love this question. For me, I love knowing how whatever behavior is being recognized had an impact on the individual doing the recognizing. I want to know how it felt for you that I helped you walk through some new analysis or some new process at work. Did that make you feel more confident in your work? Did that make you feel more accepted? That's what I want to hear -- the personal side to it. The best recognition -- and, and back to the pillars -- not only is authentic, but it's specific. And this gets back to how recognition works: It's a positive reinforcement tool. And the way to reinforce behavior that you want to see replicated is to be specific about what you're recognizing. So if I want to thank you for doing, let's say, a new onboarding or developing a new program or whatever it is, I want to mention that specifically -- what it was about that that was impactful for me. Because that way, I'm showing you I want to see that again. Can you please do that again for myself or for other people? Because that help, was helpful.

Mohamed Younis 12:02
And you're also in a way showing the other team participants what you, as an organization, as a leader, whatever -- what you value, and what your definition is of, you know, to use a sport metaphor, like a touchdown. Like what is a touchdown in the eyes of my boss, my, my manager, my team leader? Because sometimes that can get challenging. Like what are the things that are productive and should be rewarded, versus what are things that are really attention-getting maybe and impressive, but not necessarily in line with the general objective of the under, the undertaking of the team?

Isha Vicaria 12:42
Yeah. And I'm so glad you mentioned that, because I think another benefit to being specific about recognition is that it kind of takes the anxiety of being placed on the spot away. Because then, you're not just being thanked and being put on the spotlight for having done good work vaguely. When you're recognized for a specific contribution, a specific action, you can own up to that. You did that, and that's something to be celebrated.

Mohamed Younis 13:13
I love this quote from a blog that was written about the report on DEI in the corporate world, in the HR world generally, whether it's for profit or nonprofit. And the quote says, "You can't harness the power of diversity without inclusion, and you can't retain diverse employees without it either." It really made me grin. But I wanted to ask you, what does that mean to you?

Isha Vicaria 13:34
I love that quote from the blog post. That was really, really well done. For me, D&I and recognition, there are two things I can talk about. One is what we were saying with recognition being equitable. Really make sure all of the employees in your organization are seen and heard and valued and celebrated for their whole human experience at work. So that's one thing -- recognize everybody's achievements. Don't leave anybody out. Pay attention to where there are inequities, and really celebrate the voices that aren't typically heard. And then there's a whole other component of recognition and D&I that I love to talk about, because it ties into the psychology of positive reinforcement is use recognition as a D&I, as a, as a tool to promote and recognize inclusive behaviors. So this is a way to show and demonstrate to your organization, I value XYZ that was done that promoted an inclusive environment.

Isha Vicaria 14:35
And if you will, I actually have a couple of paraphrased messages that, that stood out to me as examples of inclusive behavior being recognized and celebrated. So as part of my work, I get to look at individual recognition moments. And each moment is a connection between employees on something good that happened at work. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and have conversations with the facilities team regarding changes to the mother's room in our offices. This resulted in an improved process and more inclusive environment for current and future mothers at our company. Love that. Another one: Thank you again for reaching out to me after the George Floyd incident and for the, and the first weekend of protests, to ask me how I was doing and invite me and other team members to share how we were feeling during these very emotional times. Thank you for leading with your heart and modeling openness and respect. There were a few others on moderating panels and webinars and creating reflection videos on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder. Thank you for continuing to invest time and energy to ensure continued discussion of such an important topic. I love that these moments are celebrating, not just work, not just productivity-related behaviors; it's celebrating and calling out when the human experience is shown and celebrated at work.

Mohamed Younis 16:04
Absolutely. Those are such great examples. And you mentioned COVID. You know, obviously one of the things that happened during the lockdown was the George Floyd killing and the impact it had, particularly here in the U.S. But it was just another reminder of the fact that these, in our modern world, no matter what you do for a living, these issues are going to come up in the workplace. People are human beings. It's been amazing to me to see the difference in organizations in the approach they take. Some organizations really take the approach of like we need to make a statement about what happened out, you know, out in the real world, but it doesn't really have anything to do with who they are as a company or have any relation to their business. And other organizations really focused on doing what you mentioned, which is creating a space where people feel like if they want to, they can talk about these things at work in a respectful, caring environment. So talk to us a little bit about these kind of social crises, and how, how have you seen organizations deal with them well and not so well?

Isha Vicaria 17:06
I've seen solidarity statements, you know, it was very popular for organizations and universities to put out these statements in solidarity with the Black community, with, you know, anybody who's been affected by the social unrest of 2020 and beyond. But really, like you said, I think when employees are allowed and encouraged to engage with each other directly, that's where the real community benefits come from. I can connect this to recognition because we see the best outcomes of recognition when our clients allow for peer-to-peer nomination of awards and recognition moments. Because a manager sending a message or sending a bonus or an award sends a message at the end of a project or the completion of a program. But the peers, the colleagues are there day to day, seeing you come into work affected by what's going on in the news. They're there taking over if you have to pick up your kid early from work. They're there on that journey every day at work. So when you allow peers to recognize and celebrate each other, that's where the real magic happens.

Mohamed Younis 18:27
That's Dr. Isha Vicaria of Workhuman. Isha, thank you so much for being with us.

Isha Vicaria 18:31
Thank you.

Mohamed Younis 18:32
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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