aligning employee recognition efforts with a learning culture

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“Learning enablement” is a popular topic in workplace development circles. Organizations are noticing that the highest performers tend to be those employees who are most willing to learn. Creating a learning culture, where employees have easy access to the latest educational material, is a key factor in building a more productive workforce. But curating easily accessible educational material is only one piece of the puzzle—the other piece is an issue HR departments have grappled with for decades: the problem of employee engagement.

Gallup polling indicates that 70% of employees do not feel engaged at work. This substantial majority of workers will be loath to adopt the latest methodologies, and will resist learning about the newest features a product has to offer.

Fortunately, there is an answer. The number one way to increase employee engagement is bolstering employee recognition. Employees who feel recognized will be more engaged, and more willing to learn. And if they are willing to learn, it is likely they will perform in a way befitting further recognition—you can see where this is going.

Unfortunately, when most companies hear “employee recognition” they think of traditional, formal programs like “Employee of the Month.” But while organizations implementing these sorts of programs have their hearts in the right place, these are not the best ways to recognize your employees. The “Employee of the Month” system and its ilk are easily befuddled by diverse skills and talents.

What if multiple employees go above and beyond, all performing at “Employee of the Month” levels, but in different ways? One will be elevated while the other is snubbed, or not even realize how strong their work was. Without this kind of positive feedback, you create a workplace where employees feel frustrated and unengaged.

It is critical that recognition programs are built with personalization in mind. Every worker has their own unique skill set, and when you take the time to recognize individual talents and accomplishments, employee performance improves. Here are some ways to bolster your recognition program, improve employee engagement, and further enable a learning culture.

Distinguish generational differences. The type of recognition preferred varies greatly across generations. Baby Boomers tend to prefer formal, public recognition. They want to be recognized in front of their peers for their efforts. On the other hand, Millennials would rather be recognized in the form of novel experiences. They would rather be given the opportunity to go skiing or patronize a cheese parlor. But generational differences do not stop there. Older workers generally prefer to be recognized less frequently, but with more significance. Younger workers prefer the opposite way: they want more frequent recognition, but do not want it to carry as much gravity. Taking these generational preferences into account is critical for boosting the influence of your recognition program.

Recognize skills and achievements, not just people. Differences in age are not the only way your employees are distinct. Different people will achieve different things; recognize diverse skills and achievements unique to the individual. This is another area the traditional “Employee of the Month” method breaks down: different people may excel in entirely different fields. The determinants of “best employee in a given month” are tenebrous at best—and your employees know it. Recognizing the improvement in skill is also vital for building a culture of learning. Your employees want to be recognized when they expand their skillset by attending a seminar or successfully completing an employee onboarding course.

Make recognition multifaceted. Cash and gift cards are great, but they are not everything. Think beyond cash incentives. Remember how Millennials and Baby Boomers prefer entirely different ways of being recognized? Instead of giving Walmart gift cards to everyone deserving of recognition, use that budget to organize a public event or provide fine dining opportunities. Of course, when all is said and done, everyone appreciates a monetary reward. Give high achievers a choice in the way they are recognized.

Utilize technology. Technology has brought us closer than ever before. It makes it easy for the highest level executive to congratulate the lowest member of the totem pole for a job well done. A simple department-wide email can go a long way—imagine the impact of a video call with the company president.

Do it.  This list is far from exhaustive, and there are many more ways to tweak a solid recognition program to better recognize each individual’s skills and achievements. But all the planning in the world will go to waste if steps are not taken to implement those plans. Small congratulations by a manager are sometimes all it takes to push an employee to that next level.

Endemic workplace disengagement can stifle even the most valiant attempts to enable a workplace culture that facilitates learning. Creating a personalized recognition methodology will do wonders to reengage those who may have become disenchanted with their employment and employer, and encourage them to learn more than ever before.

By blake beus
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