Giving is undervalued, it is time to change how employee recognition works.

It’s better to give than to receive, so they say, but when it comes to employee recognition, the act of giving has been overlooked.

We know that giving has a positive impact on numerous fronts. In 2006, a respected Harvard Business School study showed that when people give money, they gain more satisfaction and happiness from the gesture than the recipients themselves. This giving “high” has been looked at in many contexts and has been the subject of several other renowned psychological studies. The National Institute of Health research looked specifically at giving to charity, finding that people were activating areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect.

The evidence around giving has often been overlooked within employee recognition, where traditionally the act of recognition is a performance related manager transaction. However as the people side of business starts to be directly connected to performance and profit, giving has an important role to play in company culture and employee wellbeing.

Happiness researcher Barbara Fredrickson cites cultivating gratitude in everyday life as one of the keys to increasing personal happiness. The act of both giving and receiving can elicit feelings of gratitude, which is inextricably linked to our happiness, health, and social bonds. The growing evidence points towards positive social interactions such as those created through giving and receiving, as being central to both our mental, and physical health.

Interestingly, renowned sociologists Brent Simpson and Robb Willer also found that when you give to others, your generosity is likely to be rewarded farther down the line by the person you gave to or by others. Behaving generously inspires observers to also behave generously, towards different people.

Think employee recognition community, not program.

All of this has powerful implications for employee recognition. If we know that giving promotes cooperation and social connection, it does make you think whether employee recognition has only ever focussed on 50% of the value? and if rewarding performance alone is really a reason to invest in employee recognition?

It is surely time to think more along the lines of an employee recognition community, where everyone contributes and benefits from the act of giving and receiving, rather than a traditional “culture killer” recognition program where the emphasis is only about what you get out.

Dave Ulrich, a leading HR thinker recently spoke at the inaugural Art of HR conference in Dubrovnik. Amongst his memorable quotes one really stood out for me, “Engagement is moving from behaviour to emotion. Do people not just show up but with passion, energy, and excitement?”

I am not sure employee engagement is moving myself, more that it is starting to be better understood. However the question HR needs to be asking itself is correct. Instead of thinking about how to motivate employees, the focus is beginning to be on how HR can help employees find and express these emotions, and motivate themselves.

The question is not how do we get employees to motivate themselves, more how do we let them.

Removing many of the rules and poor management that stand in the way of our own motivation is a good start. There is no better words written on this subject than by Ted Coine and Mark Babbitt, The New Rules of the Social Age is a must read for any forward thinking HR professional.

Also as the evidence shows, expression, giving, generosity and positive behaviour, in their natural form, are key to how we motivate ourselves. Yet these vital actions or emotions are currently controlled or ignored.

Unfortunately the “giving strategy” within employee recognition is still heavily defined by reward, or manager only expression. A good example of this is recognition programs with big individual reward denominations. The bigger the reward, the more likely managers will need to interrupt or worse still, monopolise the process. Big reward almost always means employee recognition turns into a manager dominated reward for performance process. The reward value has to be justified. Of course there is a place for performance excellence within employee recognition programs, but I would not say it ranks as a priority. I would much rather see performance bonus, career progression and incentives take care of the “Top 10%”, for want of a better phrase.

HR need to start to build maximum natural employee participation, where the emphasis is focussed on the motivational benefits and understanding of giving recognition, not just receiving it. That means low reward values, perks, time, activities or no reward at all, only then can giving, and positive expression be an integral part of every employee’s working week.

Manager recognition is a low frequency transaction, in a world of high frequency interaction.

Employee recognition is becoming much more sophisticated and effective as it innovates within its new social format. Social recognition ensures employees, and not just managers, can express their emotional highs, and find the motivational opportunities that reduce stress, increase happiness and connect us to our work. HR need to look beyond the traditional view that recognition, and indeed reward, is something employees only receive, it is outdated. Giving recognition is so much more than performance, it is an investment in our wellbeing, and the psychological health of your workforce.