The importance of distinguishing appreciation from recognition

Recognition and appreciation programs are an obvious and common approach to boost your employee engagement. While many appreciation and recognition efforts are designed to make a real difference for workers, the concepts of appreciation and recognition themselves are quite different; one is not better than the other, but they have distinct intents and outcomes.

Appreciation is about the heart. Being appreciative sounds like, “I appreciate the extra hours you worked on that project” or, “I appreciate you being so thoughtful.” Appreciation feels like, “I see you, I know you and you are a person I care about.” Here are three key things to consider about delivering appreciation:

  • You can’t fake appreciation. Most of us can spot a fake a mile away. Often, coerced appreciation happens but not regularly, such as on an allotted day. It sounds generalized, like it came from a greeting card. For appreciation to be real and more than a check-the-box sentiment, it has to come from the heart.
  • Everyone has something worthy of appreciation. You don’t have to be best friends with someone to appreciate something about them. Sometimes we get stuck in the “this person drives me crazy” space, and it overwhelms how we experience that person. Take a step back and push that lack of likeability to the side for a moment. Appreciation means a lot to anyone, but it’s extra special when you appreciate something about someone that isn’t quite your best buddy.
  • Appreciation means a lot, no matter where it comes from. Appreciation is honoring the innate humanness of someone. You can appreciate your direct reports, your co-workers or even your boss! Look beyond your team and appreciate someone and make them smile.

As great as appreciation is–and it is great–it’s not the same as recognition. The outcome from appreciation is to feel goodness. The outcome of recognition is engagement. Recognition sounds like, “You delivered a great presentation today.” Recognition feels like “a job well done.” Although there is certainly an element of “heart” in recognition, it’s more about “head.” Here are three key items when considering recognition:

  • Recognition is specific. For recognition to be meaningful, it must be specific. A general statement about work doesn’t cut it. As a recipient of recognition, I need to know that you’re paying enough attention to me that you know what I’m working on.
  • The most powerful recognition comes from my team leader. It’s not that recognition from people other than my team leader is bad; in fact, it’s good. But the biggest impact of recognition comes from the person who is most important to me at work: my boss.
  • Recognition is extreme. Recognizing mediocrity or work that is just OK feels like a forced activity. Meaningful recognition catches people not just doing things right, but doing things that are excellent.

How do we know those three things about engagement? We know from the research that the most meaningful driver of engagement when it comes to recognition is not “I am recognized for good work,” but “I know I will be recognized for excellent work.” When you pay attention to individual work frequently, people will feel confident that you’ll see them at their best when it happens.

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Organizations continue to confuse appreciation and recognition. Simply, appreciation is nice and we should do more of it, where recognition is all about proving how actions speak louder than words–it’s attention from the most important person at work, the leader. Our question should not be whether we should be focusing on recognition or appreciation. Instead, we need to create an environment of appreciation for each other and recognition for our direct reports. Good companies invest in one or the other. The best companies invest in both.


Amy Leschke-Kahle is vice president, performance acceleration, at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company.

Amy Leschke-Kahle
Amy Leschke-Kahle
Amy Leschke-Kahle is vice president of performance acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company.