Why Go Micro for Recognition at Work?

What is micro-recognition?

Before examining the benefits of micro-recognition at work, it’s necessary to establish the type of reward being examined here. Micro-recognition is informal, person-to-person recognition that is primarily intended to increase social status or influence. At work, this type of recognition holds social value rather than monetary value and ranges from a supervisor or peer personally giving positive feedback or praise to a public announcement acknowledging an accomplishment, such as a shout out in the department newsletter. Due to the non-monetary nature of micro-recognition, it can be easily shared at a higher degree of frequency relative to monetary rewards, or macro-recognition.

Accomplishment is a powerful motivator

To understand how micro-recognition works, it is important to understand Self Determination Theory (SDT), a psychological theory of human motivation. The underlying principle of this theory is that motivation and value can be derived from one’s innate sense of accomplishment. SDT states that a person is more likely to be motivated by their own desire for accomplishment (i.e., intrinsic motivation) rather than an external factor such as trying to appease others or completing a task simply because it was assigned (i.e., extrinsic motivation). Extrinsic motivation, in this context, is seen as a controlling force, and this theory suggests that being controlled can actually decrease a person’s motivation by externalizing the reasons for trying to accomplish something. I think about this in the context of how I knock out my daily and weekly tasks: when I have the latitude to choose the order of completion—the first tasks I knock out, the ones that I’m most motivated to finish, are those related to ideas and projects that I initiated, and then I move to those that were assigned to me.

In the workplace, the principle of self determination translates to using types of recognition

that foster a sense of accomplishment, such as positive feedback or praise or a shout out in the department newsletter. These types of micro-recognition at work serve as a way to foster the desired sense of accomplishment without taking over as the sole, or even primary, motivator for future action1. When recognition is used as encouragement, employees tend to respond positively. Along these lines, research has demonstrated that the motivation from social (i.e., non-cash) recognition can increase employee performance and reduce employee absenteeism.

Frequency of recognition at work matters

Across organizations, there is a growing trend to go outside of the traditional, annual performance appraisal system and provide performance feedback to employees on a more regular basis. Micro-recognition aligns with this trend because it incurs no monetary costs, essentially making it a limitless option for providing more regular feedback to employees. One clear benefit to an endless supply of micro-recognition is the ability to recognize each employee’s accomplishments immediately after they occur (emphasizing the micro in micro-recognition). In contrast, macro-recognition given through, say, an annual bonus, is overtly detached from specific behaviors. Research from behavioral economics refers to the close association of specific behaviors with specific recognition for those behaviors as saliency, and saliency is posited to be an important part of the effort-reward model.

Micro-recognition does not only focus on rewarding results, but also on rewarding intermediate behaviors (e.g., the effort) that may eventually lead to results—a more granular approach that is only made possible through frequent recognition. The way in which micro-recognition influences motivation through encouragement is an example of influencing the intermediate behaviors that eventually yield the desired outcomes. Additionally, research has shown that frequent micro-recognition at work can influence intermediate attitudes, such as  increased feelings of support and satisfaction that impact job performance. 

Consistency and duration are key

One clear caveat with more frequent recognition is the possibility that the recognition will lose its value or authenticity, and, in turn, its positive impact, over time. Research suggests, however, that this is not the case for micro-recognition. Research comparing macro- and micro-recognition has demonstrated that macro-recognition can have a stronger, immediate positive impact on employee performance, but that the positive effects of micro-recognition can grow over time and eventually become at least equal to those of macro-recognition. This is consistent with SDT and research suggesting that the impact from external forces will not last as long as the impact from support that fosters intrinsic motivation.

The nature of micro-recognition, which requires time to manifest its positive impact, means that patience and persistence are necessary. Micro-recognition at work will not be a quick fix, but rather is likely best to be implemented as a long-term program with many people involved—both at the managerial and frontline (i.e., peer) levels—to help sustain the program. Research has demonstrated that there are situations where employees, in fact, value recognition from peers more than from their managers, suggesting that the ability to provide micro-recognition should not be limited to managers.

Concluding thoughts

Although micro-recognition at work has clear benefits, macro recognition (e.g., financial incentives) should in no way be scrapped, avoided, or feared of having a negative impact. In fact, research shows that the synergistic effects of using micro- and macro-recognition together are stronger than any of their effects individually, Rather, it’s important to understand that micro-recognition holds value and deserves a place in HR strategy for most, if not all, organizations and is a worthwhile skill to include in employee training. The benefits of micro-recognition translate to employees who do more work and want to work for you when given the encouragement to develop their own sense of accomplishment.

Want to learn more? Head over to our blog for a deeper dive into why both micro- and macro-recognition are integral to communication and culture

1This is not to say that micro-recognition can never be seen as a controlling force. For example, foundational SDT research suggests that informational micro-recognition (e.g., “You received the highest customer satisfaction scores”) is less controlling than micro-recognition that contains expectations (e.g., “If you keep up the good work, I will be able to recommend you for a promotion.”).

*Note: all research findings in this article are cited by links to their original sources. For a full reference list of cited articles, please click here.

Daniel Shore is a PhD candidate studying and conducting research on employee recognition and rewards in the Industrial-Organizational (Workplace) Psychology program at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, from where he also received his Master’s degree in the same field. In this article, Daniel draws from Industrial-Organizational psychology research—both psychological theory and previous research studies—to explain why the use of informal recognition in the workplace can be so effective.