Peer-to-Peer Recognition: The Good, the Bad, and the Questionable

July 10, 2023 9:00 am Published by

Peer-to-peer recognition programs have become quite the rage in the past few years. Unfortunately, they are not the panacea of positive workplace culture they are often purported to be by those selling them to companies.

Within the context of employee recognition programs, peer-to-peer recognition generally refers to a tool within a technology platform which allows colleagues to send electronic messages to one another, primarily to recognize work well done. The message may be as simple as “Good job!”, “Way to go!” or slightly more specific, like “Thanks for getting that report to me.” They may often be accompanied by a positive emoji (like a thumbs up) or the message may just be an emoji by itself.

To more fully understand what is driving the increased use of peer-to-peer recognition, some historical context is necessary. In past decades (pre-2010s), one of HR’s primary focuses centered around employee recognition, which flowed out of behavioral and performance research from the late 20th century that showed desired behaviors by employees (answering the phone cheerfully, meeting report deadlines, reaching sales goals) increased when:

a) the desired behaviors were specifically described;

b) goals were set by the employee and supervisor related to the behaviors;

c) the frequency (and sometimes, the quality) of the behaviors were monitored and measured; and

d) the employee received some type of reward (either social recognition or a financial benefit). 

Desired behaviors and outcomes applied to work; and positive results were obtained.

However, around the same time, a separate line of research regarding employee engagement developed which showed the power and positive impact of employees being mentally and emotionally engaged in their work (versus just physically present). Numerous research studies found positive effects when comparing engaged and disengaged employees – higher productivity, less absenteeism, more accurate work, less on-the-job accidents, and greater profitability for the company. 

As a result, employee engagement became the golden goose everyone was chasing.  One strategy implemented to increase employee engagement was employee recognition. And, initially, there was some success. But as this purpose for employee recognition was adopted and scaled up within organizations, the result became a rote, impersonal process of giving out awards primarily for years of service and employee of the month.

Because of the way employee recognition programs became institutional and mechanical in nature, not behaviorally-specific, they ceased to have much impact. Hence, employee engagement has been on a downward trend for several years.

Since traditional rewards and recognition companies make their money primarily through the sale of the rewards companies give their employees, they have been at risk of losing business. Why? Because what they said would happen, that rewarding employees would increase employee engagement, has not been shown to be the case.

Enter: Appreciation. Around 2010, the concept of showing authentic appreciation to employees was introduced by two sources: a) an academic process called “appreciative inquiry” where leaders interviewed their employees to find out when they felt appreciation; and b) The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and the associated online assessment. This focus on appreciating the employee has been a disruptive force within the recognition and rewards industry – partly because the focus is not solely on performance but also includes the value of the person (beyond accomplishments). If you do a literature search, the term “appreciation” is rarely used in the context of work-relationships prior to 2011. However, since that time appreciation has become a popular buzzword. In fact, many rewards and recognition companies have co-opted the term and use it as a synonym for recognition in their materials.

When the income related to rewards began to decline, rewards and recognition companies began to develop and sell technology-based recognition platforms to companies. These platforms provided a number of features (many of them valuable) including: inter-office chat and texting, inner-office newsletters, learning management systems, and goal setting and tracking tools. But a key component has been providing ways to set and monitor goals reached by employees (either behavioral or performance) so they will then be rewarded by the company (often through gift cards, actual retail products, or earning travel benefits for a vacation).

One tool added to platforms in the past few years has been peer-to-peer recognition. Why? One major reason is because it has become clear that younger employees are more focused on collegial relationships than they are with impressing their boss. They value the relationships with their colleagues more than developing a positive relationship with their supervisor or manager. Secondly, peer-to-peer recognition has a glitz factor in using technology as its delivery mechanism. Rather than compliment a coworker in person, an employee can send a quick “You rock!” message with an emoji. And thirdly, peer-to-peer recognition activities don’t cost the employer much at all – generally, just the cost of the platform and possibly an occasional reward when an employee reaches 10 complimentary messages from a colleague.

While there are positive aspects of peer-to-peer recognition (primarily, it focuses attention on collegial-based relationships rather than supervisors and managers), clearly it is not the answer to the lack of employee engagement, the epidemic levels of disconnectedness and loneliness reported among employees, or to the incredibly high resignation rates we have seen in recent years.

By their very nature, peer-to-peer recognition programs have characteristics which significantly limit their impact. First, peer-to-peer recognition messages are comprised of words. And our research with over 375,000 employees shows that over one-half of all employees prefer to be shown appreciation in ways other than words. So, from the starting block, using a verbal message to all of one’s colleagues means you will miss the mark with over half of them. Second, the messages are most often generic and global (“Thanks for your help”) and we know that for verbal messages to be viewed as genuine, they need to be specific and indicate why the action was important. Finally, the ease of using them actually leads to a potential perception of cynicism and sarcasm by team members and/or a feeling of pressure to use them just to pacify management.

While peer-to-peer recognition programs are an easy way to send a quick positive message (and that is a good thing), relying on them to communicate authentic appreciation to colleagues in the ways most meaningful to the recipient is clearly putting unrealistic expectations on the positive effect they will have in the workplace.

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July 10, 2023 9:00 am

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