Recognition vs. Rewards vs. Gratitude: What the Science Says

The evidence linking the impact of recognition and gratitude have on people and business outcomes is compelling.

In one study done by the University of Pennsylvania, telemarketers who had a brief visit from the head of giving thanking them for the efforts outperformed the shifts that did not by 50%. A Bersin study on recognition programs shows that those with a modern, recognition-rich culture have 31% lower turn-over.

However, that same study also showed what didn’t work about recognition: tenure-based recognition programs. While 87% of companies have tenure-based recognition programs and spend 1-2% of payroll (nearly $40B dollars!) on them, the study found they have virtually no impact on organizational performance. And traditional financial rewards can backfire as well.

What is the difference?

So, what is the difference between gratitude, appreciation, and recognition from a scientific standpoint? WeSpire pulled our experts together to weigh in.

Reb Rebele is the research manager for people analytics at The Wharton School theorizes:

  • Recognition is the act of expressing appreciation or gratitude, making it more behavioral.
  • Appreciation is about acknowledging the perceived value of something or someone. Appreciation is more of a cognitive act.
  • Gratitude is more affective. It is about feeling thankful, either as a direct beneficiary or on behalf of someone else.

Julianna Pillemer, a Ph.D. in management at Wharton, points to an article looks at gratitude versus appreciation and the impact on life satisfaction outcomes to highlight the differences. She summarizes:

The Adler and Fagley paper defined appreciation as acknowledging the value and meaning of something’an event, a person, a behavior, an object’and feeling a positive emotional connection to it. Therefore, appreciation involves both cognition and affect.

Then, they actually conceptualize gratitude as a subcomponent of appreciation: the gratitude aspect of appreciation refers to noticing a benefit received (gifts, perceived efforts, sacrifices/actions on one’s behalf) and feeling grateful to someone for it. It is a positive emotion directed to a benefactor for some perceived, intentional benefit.

Recognition is typically thought of as the behavioral expression of these internal states, whether informally (telling someone they did a great job) or formally (giving them an award or making a public announcement).

Best Practices and Next Steps

Appreciation has a significant affect on life satisfaction, distinctive from gratitude. And both recognition and appreciation are good for work-life satisfaction and supporting the values of an inclusive culture. So, what are the best practices?

  1. Recognize people for results and specific behaviors
  2. Enable peer-to-peer recognition because it is more powerful than top-down
  3. Use storytelling to share why they are being recognized
  4. Make it easy and frequent
  5. Tie to company value or goals

For more key takeaways on how you can create a rewards and recognition program that will resonate with your entire workforce, download our Rewards and Recognition white paper today.

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