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How you can communicate to achieve better employee recognition

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Bob Nelson, a leading US consultant in employee recognition, examined why certain managers gave recognition to their staff while others didn’t. He conducted a national survey of 34 organizations, exploring the motivation for the use of employee recognition, questioning the managers about their behavior: whether it stemmed from past experience with the behavior, present reinforcement of the behavior, or future expectations of the behavior.

He found that managers who were high users of recognition tended to have initial positive experiences in using it. Their good results gave them the confidence to keep using it.

In contrast, managers who didn’t use employee recognition behavior seemed to be caught in a negative cycle. They didn’t have positive early experiences with it and therefore resisted applying it.

Dr Nelson’s findings also suggested that to trigger a positive cycle of recognition use, it may be more important for managers to have had a positive personal experience in the use of recognition than merely being given recognition tools and programs. 1

One of the key issues is whether managers actually know how and why to recognize their employees. Of course, there are two elements to employee recognition. The first aspect is to actually see, identify or realize an opportunity to praise someone. If you are not in a receptive frame of mind you can easily pass over many such opportunities. This happens all too frequently. The other aspect of employee recognition is, of course, the physical act of doing something to acknowledge and praise people for their good work.

You can measure how well managers identify good opportunities and then actually do something to recognize employees by testing through face-to-face questioning of the managers and their staff and by written questionnaires to staff.

Employee surveys should include questions about employee recognition. If not, such questions should be added. Recognition isn’t complicated, but it shows up on most employee surveys as being poorly handled. The results can then be used as tangible proof of the need to train managers in the required skills.

Managers need to be able to praise and recognize their peers in other branches and divisions. Peer pressure and recognition at all levels is a very strong motivator, so it should be actively encouraged. Employees at any level should praise and recognize their peers. Peer pressure and recognition is a very strong motivator, so it should be actively encouraged in the workplace.

Slow to praise and quick to blame

It is not surprising that many managers don’t know how and why to recognize their employees when they have been on the receiving end of criticism for most of their lives. That’s why they are quick to criticize in their turn.

How do we know that managers are quick to blame and slow to praise? The conclusive proof is in surveys conducted by Sirota Consulting, which revealed that only 38% of employees disagreed with the statement, “I get criticized much more quickly for poor performance than praised for good performance.”2 This figure was reached from interviewing 2.5 million employees in 237 private, public and not-for-profit organizations in 89 countries around the world in the ten years to 2003. And it was reached by surveying all employees in each organization, not just a sample.

A big influence on the compulsion to criticize is the way, from an early age, children find that parents and teachers focus on the their mistakes rather than their achievements. A Gallup poll comparing parents’ focus on their children’s best grades compared with their focus on their worst grades in several countries and cultures found consistent negative focus. 3 The scores were:

Focused on As
Focused on Fs
UK 22 52
Japan 18 43
China 8 56
France 7 87
USA 7 77
Canada 6 83


But where the focus is on praise, the results clearly show the benefits. A study of three groups of children in mathematics classes showed the rate of improvement as follows:

Improvement 4

Praised    71%

Criticized 19%

Ignored     5% 

The magic ratio

Positive psychology experts are finding that the frequency of small, positive acts is crucial. Psychologist John Gottman pioneered research on marriage, which suggested there is a ‘magic ratio’ of 5 to 1 in the effectiveness of positive and negative interactions.

He found that marriages are more likely to succeed when the couple’s interactions are near a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative. When the ratio draws closer to 1:1, the marriage almost always ends in divorce. From observations taken during 15-minute video interviews with 700 newlywed couples, he predicted whether they would still be together with an astounding accuracy of 94% when his team checked ten years later. 5

This ratio is critical in the workplace as well. A recent study found that workgroups with positive to negative interaction ratios greater than 3 to 1 are significantly more productive than teams that don’t reach this ratio. However, there appears to be an upper limit – things can worsen if the ratio goes beyond 13 to 1 as people realize the atmosphere isn’t grounded in reality. 6



  1. Nelson, Bob. “Why managers don’t use non-monetary recognition” PhD dissertation, 2001. Retrieved from

  2. Sirota, David; Mischkind, Louis A.; Meltzer, Michael Irwin. The enthusiastic employee – how companies profit by giving workers what they want. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Wharton School Publishing, 2005, pp. 207-208.

  3. Rath, Tom and Clifton, Donald O. How full is your bucket? New York: Gallup Press, 2004, p. 48.

  4. Rath and Clifton, p. 51.

  5. Gottman, John. Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997, p. 57.

  6. Losada, M. “The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modeling, 30, pp. 179-192, in Rath and Clifton, above, p. 57.

If you would like to know how to initiate and conduct employee recognition activities, you can find lots of ideas, and the best framework and guiding principles from my e-book, Creative ideas for employee recognition, at


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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