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The impact of "when" recognition is given on retention

There are various data points and case studies on the benefits of recognition. Whether it is a form of financial recognition to an entire team or simply recognizing an individual's high performance verbally in front of their peers, recognitions go a long way. When we are in the moment of chaos, and someone comes through the chaos as the rectifying hero, this is the most simplistic moment to give recognition. We recognize these individuals for their ability to manage through unplanned activity, while collectively hoping that it never happens again. Why is it easier to give recognition for something reactive? What about the recognition that is deserved for executing a proactive plan perfectly? Is there a correlation between retention to when we give recognition? Is the value of recognition for a proactive high performance a better investment for retention than a recognition of a reactive high performance?

Research confirms that employees working for organizations that offer recognition programs and reward them for exhibiting organizational core values have a considerably higher and more satisfying employee experience. - Marcel Schwantes

Recognition from an unplanned event

A problem that leaders face is that it is too easy to give recognition to the heroes after an unplanned event. These are the battle wounds, these are the moments when an entire pay system goes array and team members put in endless hours to repair the unplanned event. These are the battle wounds of a breakdown that could have impacted the company’s image if it wasn’t for the heroic activities of a few key individuals to get the production unit up and running. I believe we are programmed as humans to immortalize heroes that saved the day, and we are comfortable giving recognition to these individuals as leaders.

The main impact is obvious: by recognizing your employees for the work they’re doing, you will instantly boost employee engagement. When your team notices you’re recognizing their performance, they will want to keep repeating that behavior. - Jeff Cates

I am not undermining these efforts or what the momentary hero accomplished. Instead, I want to express that we are celebrating the efforts post an unplanned event. We had some form of waste with the unplanned event, and we are recognizing the accomplishment of the person that put out the fire, shut off the valve from leaking into a stormwater system, or had the knowledge of how to repair an operating unit that everyone else just stared at. Let’s be clear, giving recognition for a reactive performance doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to do it again. This is a transaction for performance and a short-lived symbol of appreciation of the performance. It did not necessarily impact retention. To improve our retention, we want to attract proactive performance, and not transact on reactive activities.

Your retention issues aren’t going to be solved by just throwing more cash and perks at everyone, and saying “thank you” over and over again. We need to recognize our teams want to be recognized for their performance throughout their journey. The reactive distributed recognition is typically loaded with physical or emotional scars, and we are not as good at giving recognition for high performance that didn’t create a scar. Why? Retention challenges can start to be reformed by not distributing recognition from a scar, but instead from a flawless plan.

Transformational impact requires transformational incentives. Therefore, payouts must be generous and focused on encouraging transformational performance rather than just good performance. - Hugh Bachmann, Robin Ligon, and Dominic Skerritt

Reframing when to give recognition

Consider a planned outage that was run to perfection. For months, the team was led by a leader that was meticulous in the planning process. By challenging previous methods of planning and scheduling the annual outage, this leader executed a flawless outage. Tirelessly, this leader articulated their vision of a perfectly run outage within a robust process of preparing for the outage. They choreographed what could happen during the outage so that they could be prepared for any unforeseen event. As a result, the outage came up on time, on budget, and without any safety incidents. Some see this as part of the job and wouldn’t even fathom providing recognition. However, I feel confident that this is the type of person we want on our team for the journey. But instead, we fail to engage and recognize their performance because it is not tied to a reactive heroic activity. And inevitably, this person leaves your team for a new opportunity.

Next time you are giving a spot bonus, giving a pay increase, or giving a form of verbal recognition, consider the scenario. Are you giving it out as a reactive performance or a proactive performance? Are you giving it yours for a momentary performance of an activity or a transformational performance? Is the recognition given as a token of appreciation for a momentary activity or for accomplishing the new bar of high performance? The foundational settings of recognition are instrumental for retention.


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