Enabling Engagement and Commitment through Recognition

I have the great privilege of being a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America. It allows me to spend time with my children while supporting the program they enjoy. I recently spent a week at our local Cub Scout Day Camp as the STEAM instructor. The youth experienced all manner of activities from popsicle stick bridge building to sculpture to launching projectiles with tabletop catapults. Midweek, one participant asked me my two-favorite pipe-stem cleaner colors. Puzzled, I mentioned lavender and white. A short while later I was presented with a pipe-stem cleaner bracelet in my favorite colors, with heartfelt expression of how much he enjoyed our sessions. Five cents worth of craft materials and I could not have been more pleased and gratified. This simple gesture reminded me of all the conversations I have had about recognition.

One of the fundamental beliefs of Performance Solutions by Milliken is that the engagement of the workforce is the foundation for all improvement. In my role, I spend a lot of my time speaking with our clients about how associate engagement is possible. Creating the environment for individual change to take place is a critical part of creating that culture of engagement. It has surprised me how often I come back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the topic of recognition as an important element in that type of culture.

Maslow's HierarchyAt our most basic level, physiological needs must be met: food, water, shelter, clothing. Once met, we have an intrinsic need to be more. In our modern society and among our workforce, basic needs are met to excess. Doubt me? How many options do you have in a grocery store for something as simple as an apple? How well do meals and t-shirts resonate or inspire associates to become and stay engaged in continuous improvement? How much negative feedback do you receive with a well-intentioned recognition event? Because employed individuals usually have their basic needs met, rewards-based recognition can fall flat or have the opposite effect of what we were trying to achieve.

Humans have an inherent need to experience accomplishment and be a part of a winning team. Why else do we proudly wear the logos of our favorite sports teams? Why else did the six-year-olds I coached know who won the soccer game, even when we technically did not keep score? We as leaders can leverage and tap into this need through how we structure recognition processes. Recognition that reinforces accomplishment and a sense of belonging does not need to be expensive: a child’s handmade bracelet made me feel my week-long volunteer commitment was worthwhile and inspired me to share my experience. A heartfelt thank you note remains one of my most cherished desk items.

Performance Solutions by Milliken practitioners recommend establishment of measurable success milestones and design of recognition that feeds the top half of Maslow’s Hierarchy to avoid entitlement or ambiguity that often plaques recognition systems. Tangible objects that go along with the recognition can and should be simple because the way in which they are shared or communicated attaches the value and meaning to the object, rather than its monetary value. We recommend notes, posted pictures, banners and announcements in our manufacturing clients’ operations. Even our decentralized organization of Practitioners regularly uses individuals’ pictures along with sincere comments in our long-distance communication meetings.

We are also proponents of James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s The Leadership Challenge . Within the practice, Encourage the Heart, leaders are challenged to personalize recognition and just say “thank you.” Recognition gives us the change to reinforce our values and mission, while celebrating victories along the way. In doing so, we also work towards satisfying individual’s higher-level needs on the Hierarchy while bringing them with us on our continuous improvement journey. How you say thank you goes a long way: state the observed accomplishment, state the impact to the giver personally and then the impact to the organization.

Rewards can disconnect people; recognition reinforces our success, values and inspires people to reach for more in their drive to belong to a winning team. A Cub Scout reminded me of my leader’s obligation to recognize the accomplishments in my organization. I hope my experience inspires you to do the same.


[1] Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346 – via psychclassics.yorku.ca.

[2] Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: Sixth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

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