Can Recognition Improve Employee Engagement?

Recognition improves the positive relationship between the giver and the receiver of recognition, leading to enhanced positive relationship strength.

Many organizations both inside and outside the recognition industry state employee recognition programs improve employee engagement scores.

But is it true?

Oh, sure, some recognition vendors and other consultancies produce surveys and then report on their outcomes. Such survey results may indicate that X percent of employees or managers “said” this or that. Others give statements indicating a percentage has “seen” some behavioral effect. All these surveys suggest that employee recognition practices and programs directly improve employee engagement results.

Some consultancies indicate that where recognition “occurs,” organizations have better employee engagement, as well as improved key performance metrics. Recognition industry vendors state how many managers or employees “say” recognition made so many things “totally awesome,” including employee engagement.

But what “people say” on a survey is not exactly sufficient proof. So I ask again: Does giving employees recognition really improve employee engagement?

No Uniformity of Definitions

Let me present the first dilemma behind this kind of research. First, there is no uniform definition of employee engagement. Most organizations describe it as employees giving discretionary effort. However, each of the studies and surveys you read about will have different explanations.

My point is that you cannot say you have improved something if everyone does not define what you’re actually talking about. Unfortunately, no one has created a common definition of what employee engagement is. So without a consistent definition of employee engagement known across all the consultancies and organizations doing the surveys, they cannot say recognition is improving the same thing.

The second part of the dilemma is that no one has properly defined what employee recognition is, either. Each organization has its own viewpoint on this. Too often, people (and vendors) get terms semantically confused—such as rewards being interpreted as recognition, and vice versa. This means that all of the surveys out there that supposedly correlate recognition with employee engagement never got together to agree on the terminology they are using.

All of this makes for an interesting situation. And it leaves all of us wondering whether recognition makes any difference at all on outcomes such as employee engagement.

Correlations or Causality?

I now will explain what I do know that employee recognition does. This is the definition I will work with in defining recognition: “Recognition is mostly an intangible expression of acknowledgement and valuing of an individual or team for their positive behaviors, their personal effort, or contributions they have made.”

From my own studies and observation, I know that employee recognition given the right way does influence behavior. How does recognition impact people’s behaviors? Our research has shown us that recognition improves the positive relationship between the giver and the receiver of recognition. From there, we saw that this enhanced positive relationship strength between people is what moves the dial on employee engagement measures and other outcomes, too.

Organizational psychologists have observed that recognition also increases the level of positive attachment people have toward the organization they work for.

How does employee recognition affect performance? It is not that recognition causes employee engagement to be higher. But there is a correlation between better and more frequent recognition occurring that leads to higher employee engagement scores.

Based on multiple social science studies, the evidence shows that recognition improves the positive relationship strength between people. Recognition also produces a positive attachment to the organization they work for—which is made up of people. Both of these factors together lead to higher levels of motivation and engagement.

It may appear to be a subtle difference, but it is a powerful one, and that is what makes all the difference. Keep giving better, more frequent recognition to employees. You won’t just engage them—you will change their lives.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: