4 Lessons My Kids Taught Me About Recognition Strategy

By: Christina Zurek

I’m in a season of gratitude right now. The weather is warm, the days are long (in a good way), and I’m aware and appreciative of the moments in my life that feel blissfully “normal” after a year(+) of feeling anything but.

This gratitude I’m feeling has turned my attention to the topic of recognition, which is why I stopped in my tracks when I was reviewing our research and saw this stat:

Eighty percent (80%) of the employees we surveyed have a recognition program at work—but only 34% of those people actually like the program.


We talk a lot about recognition at ITA Group. We believe in the philosophy of it, we sell it and we practice it ourselves. In the past, we’ve explored many angles on recognition, including the power it has to affirm sense of purpose for your people and tips on recognizing introverts who shy from the spotlight. But seeing that stat reminded me that while those philosophical and nuanced topics are still valuable, there’s an equally important need to revisit the basics of recognition strategy.

As a parent to five- and six-year-old girls, I’ve had to level up my ability to communicate complex topics clearly and quickly to stay ahead of what I affectionately call the “question spiral of doom.”

Today, I’m using my daughters and our everyday life as inspiration for a simple—but not simplistic—discussion of my top four tips for your recognition strategy to ensure your program is one that your people love.

Tip #1: Give Your People Clear Direction and Goals (A.K.A. Get Ahead of “Are We There Yet?”)

Our girls can be exceptionally patient when they know what the end-goal is; but, if there’s a communication breakdown or you skimp on the details (like expectations and what’s in it for them) it can trigger confusion and, in the worst of times, aggression. We learned that the hard way on a recent road trip to Chicago that could only be salvaged by an emergency stop for ice cream.

The Lesson: Your employees needs aren’t all that different. They’re looking to you for clear direction on what they need to do as an individual to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts.

Ideas for the Future:

  1. Make sure you know whether you’re looking to recognize or incentivize behaviors for your people. The line between recognition and incentive can be murky, so remember that recognition is generally subjective and acknowledges success after it’s demonstrated versus an incentive that establishes clear expectations and a goal that is rewarded once achieved. Because of these differences, it’s important that you communicate the details in distinctly different ways to ensure your people understand your expectations (and what’s in it for them).

  1. Just because all employees work for the same company doesn’t mean that the behaviors you recognize them for should be the same. While recognition should always be fair and equitable, a one-size-fits-all approach of offering the exact same strategy for all employees misses the opportunity to show your people that you understand their work and personal value. For example, “going above and beyond” could be a core value that unites a company but that manifests differently for different types of workers. A retail associate may respond well to recognition for doing something special for a customer but a fleet driver might feel more appropriately recognized for their time spent on the road. Training your people on what value-based behaviors look like in their role—and training others on how to specifically acknowledge contributions of others via recognition—adds clarity and relevancy, making the recipient more likely to continue those behaviors in the future.
  2. Communicate expectations in ways that are in the context of your people’s work. Different jobs are completed in different environments—especially as we see the rise of “anywhere work” take hold. Be sure that when you are explaining the initial and ongoing details of your program to people you’re doing so in ways that make sense for the job they do. For example, surprise your remote workers with a mailing to their homes or deck out the breakroom in your manufacturing facility with wall decals and swag to catch the attention of your deskless workers.

Tip #2: Encourage Open Communication (A.K.A. Let Them Know Where Their Clip Is On the Color Chart)

color chart for children's activities

There is a well-established standard of behavior at my kid’s summer day camp, and it’s governed by the “color chart,” a mechanism used by teachers to help the kids know when they are on-track, exceeding expectations or otherwise. The color chart is so highly regarded that our kids have recreated the chart at home for their stuffed animals.

The Lesson: Your people want to know how they’re doing (and what you want them to do).

Ideas for the Future:

  1. Automated, proactive nudges sent through your recognition platform, via email or text can help employees feel more in tune with how they’re performing—without making extra work for your leaders. Sustained behavior change takes time and while recognition is a great way to reinforce it, employees may not receive that recognition frequently enough to compel long-term change. That’s why automation and intelligent program design can be your best friend in motivating those behaviors. For example, a triggered message sent to employees to encourage them to recognize peers nearly always drives an increase in recognition activity.
  2. Drawing awareness to a gap can help you close it. To improve awareness of ITA Group’s core values and increase recognition of desired behaviors we recently put a challenge forth to our own people. Each team member was given a personalized dashboard on their recognition program site that showed them how many of the values they had recognized others for and by simply drawing awareness to this initiative we were able to see a measurable improvement in recognition for specific core values over the course of the promotion.

Tip #3: Enable Employee Participation (A.K.A. Make Sure Your Art Supplies Are Well-Stocked)

children's drawing of hearts on construction paper

One morning I was greeted with the construction paper card you see here and my heart couldn’t have been fuller. The back story: my daughter wanted to give me something that would remind me she loved me during the day so she used the tools available to her to get the job done. What made it even more meaningful was knowing how hard she has been working to learn to draw hearts and the personalization she included with the sun because she knows how much I love sunny days.

The Lesson: Human beings—even a sometimes-surly five-year-old—have an innate desire to show appreciation and care for others. But you need to give them the tools to do it.

Idea for the Future:

Employees work in many different types of environments and need the right tools to recognize each other in the flow of their work. Seventy-five to eighty percent (75-80%) of the workforce consists of deskless workers. These are employees who work in environments like stores, hospitals, restaurants, trucks or plants and often don’t have routine access to company devices. While a platform or app may work for some, many others could recognize others more effectively if equipped with an alternative option like printed on-the-spot cards to recognize others. If you want to ensure all employees have equal access and opportunity to recognition, it’s critical that you tailor the way they issue and receive recognition based on the job function they do.

Related: Want to know more about how you can engage and motivate deskless workers? Check out our solutions.

Tip #4: Help Your Leaders Improve Recognition (A.K.A. Don’t Forget the Swimsuits)

What’s worse than forgetting swimsuits on a pool day at camp? Literally nothing for this mom. That’s why I’m so grateful for the reminders I receive from day camp, including a color-coded monthly calendar that lets me know what days require something not normally in the backpack, a weekly summary of activities and food plans (distributed each Friday so I can plan for the upcoming week) AND ad-hoc reminders of stuff that all parents forget (like the field trip t-shirt).

The Lesson: Leaders have a lot on their plates and need help not dropping the ball. I promise, they don’t mind the reminders.

Ideas for the Future:

  1. Notifications, triggered messages, team dashboards, comparative stats—all info is good info for your leaders if you’re looking to get them more engaged and effective in your recognition efforts. Just like people want to recognize each other, leaders want their people to feel appreciated. But sometimes they forget. Help ensure that significant moments don’t get missed by giving your leaders timely reminders of upcoming milestones like service anniversaries. Then proactively push information about team performance to leaders to help them find other opportunities to recognize their people.
  2. Use automation to identify opportunities to nudge your leaders to intervene. In the day to day, it can be hard to remember if your people have been adequately recognized by others. But this can be a significant warning sign and pre-cursor to turnover. Using automation, you can signal your leaders when a potential intervention moment arises (like a new hire not being recognized or a top performer who recognizes others but doesn’t get recognized themselves).

It’s Time to Implement Personalization Into Your Recognition Strategy

Recognition isn’t inherently complicated, and I hope that’s become clear through this post. The guiding principles anchor in what humans need most to thrive—clear direction, open communication, enablement and a little help. But as workers become more functionally diverse, personalizing your tactics in your overarching strategy will be increasingly important.

For more ideas, check out this story of how we partnered with one client to improve the relevancy of their vision and values for their employees who were dispersed among medical worksites, traditional offices and even manufacturing plants.

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.