Chris Dornfeld is VP and head of Maritz Employee Experience, which works with companies around the globe to design recognition programs, engage employees and build cultures that attract, engage and retain top talent. The views expressed here are the author’s own.
Employee reward and recognition programs seem simple enough: an employee does something good, such as helpfully collaborate on a task or go above and beyond to make a project successful, and someone notices. That someone (likely a peer or manager) recognizes the employee, who, in addition to the praise, may receive points redeemable for rewards. The idea is that he or she is inspired to replicate the behavior that produced the good outcome. Not a bad deal.
This arrangement might lead you to believe — especially if you’re charged with designing and implementing an employee recognition program — if we build it, they will come, right?
And in a general sense, yes, they will. Yet little about motivating human performance is truly simple. Here’s the question that rests at the heart of every such effort: Why do people do the things they do?
This answer is often the difference between checking the box of “having a recognition program” and maintaining one that actually shapes behaviors, improves culture and ultimately makes the company successful.
It’s the question the discipline of behavioral science is always attempting to answer, for each person in each unique situation. And it’s the tested and time-honored principles of behavioral science, properly applied, that drive recognition program success.
To that end, let’s take a look at three recent client examples illustrating the importance of structuring programs on this solid foundation.
Healthcare: Jump right in.
Shared identity is one of the more interesting behavioral science principles because it can work on multiple levels at the same time. In the context of a recognition program, the sharing begins with the values espoused in the company mission, which are reflected by inclusion in the recognition program, which in turn are extended to employees.
How does this work? At the risk of getting a little nerdy with the neuroscience, some scientists believe the key may be related to mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are found in a few critical areas of the brain, and they activate when you experience something or witness someone else experience something. This biological reaction connects to how we identify with people brands and values. When we think about others for the purpose of identifying with them, we’re using the same brain machinery as when we think about ourselves.
Here’s how shared identity can come into play: Aiming to introduce new hires to company values such as collaboration and celebrating success, a healthcare firm encouraged new employees to immediately immerse themselves in the recognition program. Following a descriptive email, new-hire visits to the site jumped 22%, inspiring the company to send similar emails every quarter.