Want to Increase Employee Engagement? Stop Recognizing Employees.

This post is a redo of a post from a few years back (about 4 or 5 to be not-exact.) I decided to remix/repost based on a twitter conversation I had with @TrishMcFarlane and @AKABruno (aka Matt Stollack.)

Trish said:

“Interesting. Recognition makes me uncomfortable (personally) but validation is important to me. Wonder why?”


Today the idea of recognition is huge! Much bigger than when I first wrote about this. Companies have placed an unprecedented focus on recognition as THE way to drive employee engagement. Companies have launched, purchased, folded and pivoted – all in the name of cashing in on the recognition gold rush that sprung up around 2009. I blame it on the book Drive, which when published, shifted the conversation toward recognition as a driver of performance and engagement (to the exclusion of all else I might add.) Since then companies have poured more money into software and “social recognition” than Congress has on boondoggles and defense contracts. (FYI – by definition, when done correctly, all recognition is social – you don’t need software for that.)

Yet engagement numbers still lag.

Could it be that recognition isn’t the panacea we’ve all been sold it is?

I think recognition is only part of the answer. And like anything – it never is ONE thing. It is a mix of things – in the right measure – as Nick Lowe said.

Validation AND Recognition

In 2009 I wrote a post where I suggested that recognition wasn’t the real answer to engagement and driving behavior change and that we should seek to VALIDATE vs. recognize.

I’m back at it today. I believe the way you humanize your work environment and help your employees find meaning requires more than simply recognizing them. You need to validate them. Validation creates a value statement and communicates the impact of the activity.

THAT is what people really want.

Recognition = I see what you are doing.

Validation = What I see you doing makes a difference.


I think we need both and too often we stop before we get to the second half of that equation.

We need to not only SEE what someone is doing, but we need to connect that behavior to a mission, a value, a goal. Just doing something means nothing unless somehow you can connect that behavior to movement in the direction of success.

Some may say that I’m talking about a distinction without a difference. I disagree.

Saying thanks is nice. But saying, “thanks BECAUSE this helps you/me/us achieve [this goal]”, informs the recognition event and communicates far more than just “thanks.”

Ask yourself – how many “likes” did something you posted on Facebook get? How many of them really impacted you? Now think about comments you may have received on a status update? I’m betting you can remember far more comments than likes.

Too much of today’s “recognition” is simply the business version of “Like” on Facebook. Easy. Simple. Vapid.

Don’t stop short.

Don’t just recognize.



If you haven’t seen this before it is worth the view. While it does focus on the idea of complimenting people vs. validating – the idea of identifying and commenting on the things that make people unique is part of the “validation” conversation.

You have 15 minutes to spare don’t you? Do it!


7 responses to “Want to Increase Employee Engagement? Stop Recognizing Employees.”

  1. Great blog Paul – totally agree! When I help managers develop their effectiveness in giving feedback I use an Action / Results / Consequence technique i.e. ‘when you…’ ‘the result is…’ ‘and this is why it’s so effective for the business…’ (or, in negative feedback ‘and this is why it causes a problem for the business…’). As you say (much more succinctly!) it’s about articulating the employee actions that are making the difference

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joan for your input. Great formula. If we want people want to engage and contribute we have to be clear and forthcoming with the what, how and why of what they are doing. Keep up the good fight!


  2. It reminds me of my friend who worked late nights to finish the complex report for her manager’s presentation to senior leadership. A week later, she received 100 points to pick a product out of the catalogue and the stock “thanks for all your hard work” email. I’m sure he just checked a box.

    What would have meant more to her, as she told me, is to “know why her work was important and the positive impact it had on getting buy in from the big whigs.” Nope. It felt empty to her. She needed validation, not just recognition.

    We don’t just want a bunch of recognized people running around with badges or points, we need people who know they are difference makers. We need that second step. And that’s also how we create leaders.

    Excellent and provocative post! Thank you, Theresa


  3. I learned this working at an ice cream shop as a teenager.

    Recognition: On a hot summer day, as someone gets in line: “Hi, thanks for coming in, we will be with you as soon as possible.”.

    Validation: As someone gets to the front of the line. “Thanks for waiting. [then give them as much attention as you did everyone before them] and chat with them a bit while you make what they ordered.

    People were happy to wait, and were even happier to leave with great food and great experience.


    1. Had not occurred to me that this would work as you outlined – but the consumer experience would be enhanced by validating their patience. Great point and thanks for sharing!


  4. Excellent Video. I just enjoyed it. I have used this philosophy of appreciation, smile and Validation in my workplace and it has worked wonders in productivity and happiness of employees. As a HR professional, i have lived the videos shown. Now I have started a Softskills training company. The name of the company is YOU INSPIRED ME.

    I inspire and get inspired by people i meet.

    Thanks i loved your concept and the video. Its AMAZING.



    1. Thank you! May want to pop over to my self-hosted site. This will be phased out over the next few months. https://wphebert.com


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