Do you know the difference between recognition and appreciation?

The slight difference between the two could make-or-break the success of your team. The topic was up for debate this past Sunday in LinkedIn's Idea of the Day. The article, written by author Mike Robbins, touches on the critical differences between employee recognition and appreciation. I think he's on to something here, so I thought I'd weigh in. Let's set the stage. 

Managers and leaders, imagine you're sitting down with an employee for their annual performance review. As their supervisor, you've been looking forward to this conversation -- you get to deliver the news that they'll receive a bonus this year.  

But as you share the info, you're met with an underwhelming response. You're taken back by their lackluster reaction and immediately assume they're ungrateful, spoiled, and unappreciative. 

Before you immediately write them off, ask yourself this question: are they unappreciative, or, are they underappreciated?

This situation gets at the subtle yet distinctive differences between employee recognition and appreciation. Let's define them because, to Robbins' point, the two terms are often used interchangeably. 

Recognition

Recognition is in response to employee's performance. Because you did this, we'll give you that. It's a quid-pro-quo (this for that) contingency. 

Recognition is a good thing. It recognizes and rewards high-performers. However, there are limitations. Here's what I've come to realize with recognition-only environments:

  • First, it sends the message that "you're only as good as your last accomplishment." That's a tough environment to work in. The pressure to perform constantly will consume most people, and they'll leave for safer, more stable, environments. 
  • Second, it squashes collaboration and perpetuates unhealthy competitive atmospheres where employees jockey for their manager's attention. In the process, they'll incessantly try to one-up each other and withhold information that could benefit each other. Not what you're going for; a divided team where everyone is out for themselves. 
  • Lastly, piggy-backing off of one of Robbin's points, there are limits to recognition. You can't promote someone every time they do something that adds value. That's an unrealistic and unobtainable precedent, and therefore, an unsustainable form of motivation.

Especially during performance reviews, recognition without appreciation feels more like an obligation to employees rather than gratitude. It feels like you're checking a box. Waiting to acknowledge performance until the end-of-year-review minimizes its meaning. 

Appreciation

Appreciation is a precursor to recognition. It acknowledges employees for possessing intrinsic qualities valuable to the team. It says you're important not because of what you do, but because of who you choose to be. 

Although it seems like a small distinction, the results are anything but. 81 percent of respondents to Glassdoor's Employee Appreciation Survey said they're motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work.

One of my favorite resources on the topic is The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White, which discusses a few ways managers can show employees some appreciation. These three stood out:

  1. Words of affirmation--Verbal praise, validation, and advocacy.
  2. Quality time--Shared/additional experiences, empathetic listening, and your full attention. 
  3. Acts of service--Servant leadership (willingness to help others), making work easier for someone else, teaching, and mentoring. 

In my experience, it's the small things that count. Simply taking the time to thank an employee for their hard work and contributions, in the moment, goes a long way. 

Want your employees to be more motivated between annual review cycles? Get into the habit of appreciating them for the habits and small choices that make them a valuable asset to the team. 

Published on: Nov 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.