Employee Engagement Employee Recognition

Create a culture of recognition in 9 steps

Even among HR professionals, employee recognition is often looked at as a nice-to-have. It’s something that you do if you have room for it in the budget, but other initiatives like social events, team-building efforts, and benefits often take priority.

But what if it could be more than that? What if instead of being the cherry on top of your people strategy, it was central to driving it? 

This is what it means to build a culture of recognition. When used strategically and intentionally, recognition can play a key role in shaping the culture of your organization, becoming part of the fabric of your company in ways you never thought possible.

In this blog, we’ll share our framework for using recognition to drive meaningful cultural change, and Align, Connect, and Empower your people.

The ACE Your Culture Framework

Creating a culture of recognition can be easier said than done, especially if you haven’t had a recognition program in place before. 

How do you get your people to buy into what you’re trying to do? How do you ensure that the program is adopted consistently at every level of your company? And how do you make sure that your people use recognition in a way that will truly impact and shape your culture? 

Even at Guusto, we’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be to implement recognition without clear strategy and direction. So we thought deeply about how we could use our tool to create our ideal culture, one where employees had a sense of purpose, opportunity, and wellbeing.

With that in mind, we created the ACE Your Culture Framework, a 3-phase strategy that any company can use to shape a culture of recognition.

A Venn diagram with Align, Connect, and Empower in the three circles. The overlap sections contain the words Wellbeing, Purpose, and Opportunity

  • Align your people to increase their sense of Purpose and Wellbeing
  • Connect them to provide more Opportunity and promote Wellbeing
  • Empower them to encourage the pursuit of Purpose and Opportunity

These 3 phases are key to building a recognition program that will be impactful, inclusive, and successful. And within each area, we’ve developed 9 steps you can take to put this framework into action.

Phase 1: Using recognition to Align your team

Alignment is crucial to ensuring everyone works as a team in your organization. 

Successfully aligning your culture is all about communication and transparency, and giving everyone the information they need to excel.

At a more basic level, it’s about trust. When there’s no alignment, there’s no trust. And without trust, you have no chance of building a culture of recognition.

1. Be consistent

If you want to Align your people and foster trust, you need to build consistency into your recognition program.

This doesn’t mean that you send recognition like clockwork at scheduled times. In fact, this would be counterproductive, as the reward comes to be expected. 

Frequent, variable rewards attached to actions do a better job at reinforcing behaviour. They feel like nice surprises, and release dopamine into our brains.

Also, recognition is more effective when it’s immediate (or close to it) – not 12 months later at a performance review when no one remembers what actually happened. Recognizing people immediately for their work will help build a stronger association between their actions and rewards.

But building consistency starts at the top. Your management team needs to ‘walk the talk’ if you want everyone to buy in. Your leadership should set the tone for your program by consistently recognizing people at all levels of the organization, particularly for actions that push the company towards realizing its Mission and Vision.

People pay attention to what leaders are doing, so if your managers and executives are using your program regularly, other people will, too.

2. Reward objectives

Your mission and vision are the overarching goals that drive your company, but there are thousands of other short, medium and long-term objectives you'll need to meet to get there. 

And when employees meet these objectives, they need to be celebrated. This is the key to really ingraining your program into the fabric of your organization and creating a culture of recognition.

You should recognize people for meeting objectives on both an individual and team basis. This helps to improve teamwork, while also encouraging each person to strive to do their personal best in their own roles.

Putting rewards in place for objectives also forces you to set very clear objectives, which is really powerful, and can help drive tangible improvements to your bottom line. This will also help to ensure that your recognition program rewards people for really going above and beyond, rather than just showing up and doing what’s expected of them.

3. Recognize core values in action

In many ways, your core values are the cornerstone of your company culture. While your Mission, Vision, and objectives will remind people of your big-picture goals, core values can be much more actionable in their daily work. They can serve as a touchpoint to guide the decisions your employees make, their working approaches, and how they treat others.

Making them a key part of a culture of recognition can help you achieve that. You can tie them directly to your program by setting each of your core values as ‘reward reasons’ in your recognition software. 

From there, you can track and measure how often they are being put into action, and even reward the monthly ‘top performer’ in each core value.

To do this successfully, it’s important to reiterate your core values in meetings and internal communications. This will keep them top of mind for your employees

Rewarding employees for demonstrating core values will also help them better understand how they translate to their day-to-day work. And because they can see that putting your core values into action is valued by your company, they’ll keep doing it.

Phase 2: Connecting people through recognition

When we talk about connection, we’re talking about getting people to care personally about each other so they have a sense of belonging. This is especially important in today’s landscape of remote work, distributed teams, and asynchronous communication.

When there’s no connection, there’s no collaboration. And without collaboration, your team is just a group of individuals. 

Recognition can be an incredible tool to foster connection and collaboration in your team, and build mutual respect, appreciation, and unity to your culture.

4. Peer-to-Peer recognition

While some companies only empower managers, executives, or other senior employees to recognize people, a peer-to-peer program can help you create a true culture of recognition that permeates every level of your organization. 

Employees don’t have a lot of ways to show their appreciation to each other. They may think the world of their colleagues, but opportunities to let them know don’t come up often enough. This can foster disconnect and leave people feeling isolated. 

Peer-to-peer recognition gives your employees agency to recognize each other that they wouldn’t normally have, and that can be incredibly impactful.

Peer-to-peer programs can be monetary, where each employee gets a budget for rewards, or non-monetary, where employees recognize colleagues but without a tangible reward. Either way, it can have a massive impact on morale, connection, and engagement.

5. Team building

Recognition can also play a vital supporting role in your efforts to build community in your organization. 

Attaching rewards to your team-building activities can help to boost participation and excitement. You can also recognize your social and planning committees for all the hard work they put in to make these initiatives possible.

To truly connect your teams, it’s important that your team-building activities are as inclusive as possible. For instance, wellness challenges should focus on obtainable goals, so you don’t put off people who are less active than others. You should also include both physical elements like exercise, and mental wellness elements like meditation. 

In addition, you should use team-building activities to build connections among employees who might not get a lot of opportunities to do so in their day-to-day work. For example, you could create cross-disciplinary teams for your events with employees from across different departments or locations, so that your people get the chance to interact with colleagues they might not have a lot of contact with.  

You can also get creative with your events, and work in activities that help your employees get to know each other better, such as trivia questions that relate to facts about their coworkers.

6. Public recognition

Recognition is more effective at connecting teams when it’s visible. 

When one employee publicly recognizes another, it shines a light on that person’s contributions for the whole team, and encourages them to appreciate that person more. 

Employees who see others recognizing each other will also be encouraged to recognize their teammates more, accelerating adoption and usage of your program. 

You can drive public recognition by highlighting recognition through the company intranet, bulletin boards, newsletters, and other channels, as well at team meetings. You could even create a recognition channel in MS Teams or Slack to place recognition front and centre within the tools your teams use most every day.

Do keep in mind that some people don’t like the spotlight and prefer more private recognition, and that’s fine! But celebrating those who do appreciate being acknowledged publicly can help you build a culture of recognition more quickly.

Phase 3: Empowering your team to build a culture of recognition

Empowering your people is arguably the most crucial element of building a culture of recognition.  

In a truly empowered company culture, people are given the means to acquire the skills they need, and are then allowed to own their projects and results. 

This means allowing people to take risks, push beyond their comfort zones, and most crucially, to make mistakes. When there’s no empowerment, there’s no leadership. And without leadership, there’s no success. 

You can use recognition to empower your people by rewarding them for owning projects, leading effectively, and developing their skills.

7. Learning & development

If you want employees who aren’t afraid to take risks, innovate, and lead, they need to be confident. And the best way to build that confidence is to invest in giving them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

To empower your team to grow, start by making learning and development a priority. 

You can use recognition to incentivize learning and development by recognizing employees when they complete courses and trainings, implement new learnings in their work, or just bring innovative ideas to their roles.

Again, it’s important to recognize them for trying new things even if they fail. This will make your people feel safer when taking on new challenges. What’s more, don’t forget to recognize managers and senior staff for taking the time to help others learn and develop.

8. Coach performance

Coaching should happen at all levels of your organization, with everyone from executives to junior employees helping others to get better.

You can also coach recognition itself. A culture of recognition doesn’t happen overnight, and in many cases you might need to give team members a push to embrace recognition and do it consistently.  

After you launch your program, talk to employees about why their participation is important, and coach managers and have managers coach employees in how and when to recognize each other.

9. Manager budgets

We spoke previously about how peer-to-peer recognition can help connect teams and give every employee a voice, but it’s arguably even more important that your managers are empowered to reward their people.

Managers have limited means to make their top talent feel valued. They usually don’t have much control over pay and other benefits, perks, or even advancement opportunities. Recognition can become one of the most valuable tools at their disposal when it comes to engaging and motivating their people.

For this to happen, the rewards they offer employees need to be tangible, which means giving them a budget for recognition, and making sure they use it. To ensure this happens, you should take steps to make your program as simple as possible, and minimize any approvals or oversight. This gives your managers ownership of the program, and will make them feel more like it is a tool for them rather than just something ‘HR is making us do’.

You can also share habit-forming tips and strategies to help them recognize their team consistently and drive adoption.

Start creating a culture of recognition at your company

Want to start creating your own culture of recognition?

In The Ultimate Employee Recognition Playbook, we detail 6 simple steps you can take to implement an effective recognition program. You’ll learn how to:

  • Make the case for employee recognition
  • Build your team of champions
  • Find the right solution for your needs
  • Set your goals
  • Launch your program
  • Measure the results


Click here to download your copy today:

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Noah Warder

Written by Noah Warder

Noah is the Head of People at Guusto and loves sharing his insights, experience and knowledge when it comes to HR and People practices. He is always up for a conversation on how best to support employees to make safe and inclusive work cultures.

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