Benefits and Compensation, Talent

3 Behavioral Science Principles That Drive Recognition Program Results

What makes a best practice a best practice? Usually, the answer is a long period of trial and error, with time and experience revealing the most reliable method for addressing a particular challenge.

Yet, there’s something else behind the time and experience, and it’s the very bedrock of any human performance initiative: the applied principles of behavioral science. That may sound abstract, but so far as it concerns employee recognition programs, it’s actually pretty straightforward.

What is behavioral science? It’s figuring out why people do what they do. Naturally, a clear sense of how employees will likely behave would be immensely useful in designing and managing any sort of employee program involving recognition and motivation. A program resting on a foundation of behavioral science will have a much better chance of delivering business value than one haphazardly thrown together.

In short, these principles, properly applied, make recognition programs effective because innate human needs and habits dictate that they’ll be effective.

We recently created an infographic illustrating how several of these behavioral science principles help drive program results. Here, we’ll go into a little more detail.

Shared Identity

A healthcare company wanted to encourage its new employees to participate in its employee recognition program as soon as possible. An e-mail clearly describing the process was sent to new hires shortly after onboarding, resulting in a 22% increase in site visits.

Why this worked. When we think about people, brands, or values we identify with, we use similar brain machinery as when we think about ourselves. Our sense of who we are becomes intertwined with those identifications, and we begin to share an identity with the things we interact with most.

This principle of shared identity is what ultimately makes employee recognition programs work. A program should reinforce company purpose and connect participants to its mission of appreciation and respect. The program “shares” an identity with company values by aligning with specific aspects of those values; in this case, collaboration.

The sharing then extends to employees. Encouraging employees to immediately immerse themselves in the program begins the process of anchoring them to the company values of recognizing success and delivering quality through collaboration. As new employees give and receive recognition that supports appealing values, they internalize those values—the strong response rate suggests many already have—thus forming a strong bond of shared identity.

Social Rewards

A financial services provider was hoping to encourage participation following transition to a new platform. Spurred to issue at least five recognitions per week, employees increased their rate 500% during the month-long campaign.

Why this worked. Human beings have an innate desire to connect with others. The relationships that emerge help define our sense of self and produce many positive effects, such as reducing stress and increasing trust.

These connections offer several means of activating the “reward center” in our brains. One of these is receiving praise. When an employee is recognized by a fellow employee, the brain reads it as it would a monetary reward.

These social reward interactions are valuable beyond any direct business results because they underscore that employees are not merely the means to an end but are an end in and of themselves. However a company chooses to view its workers, they will always regard each other as people first and employees second. These connections are what bring them back to work every day.

Progress Feedback

A hospitality organization was looking to reinforce the connection between earned rewards and their employees’ value to the company by encouraging them to redeem their stored points. Personalized e-mails with each employee’s point balance resulted in 10,000 site visits and $800,000 worth of redemption.

Why this worked. It would be difficult to identify an employee need greater than knowing what they do matters and that they’re making progress toward a goal. There are many aspects to a purposeful and fulfilling employee experience, but progress will always be the primary driver of job satisfaction.

Delaying reward redemption bypasses the payoff for all the progress: the actual reward experience. Redemption exposes employees to more branded program content, gives them something that tangibly represents their success, and keeps them engaged and motivated. Effective communication, such as this personalized e-mail, moves participants from passive accumulation to active engagement.

Shared identity, social reward, and progress feedback are behavioral science principles that should undergird any employee recognition program, but they’re just a start. These and many others can be used to sustain any aspect of building a purposeful corporate culture and an employee experience that not only keeps your people engaged, but also increases revenue, reduces turnover, and satisfies customers.

Chris Dornfeld is VP and GM of Maritz Employee Experience in St. Louis, Missouri. Maritz EX takes a holistic approach to helping businesses build cultures that attract, engage, and retain employees, unlocking the hidden potential of their workforce.