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A little recognition can provide a big morale boost

As we enter the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, front-line public sector workers such as health-care professionals, teachers and social workers are under more strain than ever. At the same time, organizations in every industry are being forced to downsize and restructure, meaning they have less cash in the bank to support an increasingly burned out work force. In these trying times, what can managers do to keep their employees motivated?

To answer this question, we conducted a series of studies in collaboration with the nonprofit group What Works for Children’s Social Care, examining the impact of light-touch, cost-effective interventions designed to promote the overall happiness of social workers. While many organizations have traditionally used monetary incentives to boost employee morale and performance, recent research suggests that symbolic awards—such as congratulatory cards, public recognition and certificates—can significantly increase workers’ intrinsic motivation, performance and retention rates. As such, we were interested in measuring the impact of symbolic awards that demonstrate the organization’s appreciation and respect for employees without offering cash incentives.

While past studies have outlined some of the benefits of symbolic awards, most of the research on this topic has been conducted in the private sector. Those results may thus not be fully applicable to the nonprofit and public sector organizations that employ many of the front-line workers most impacted by the pandemic. To better understand the effectiveness of symbolic recognition for public sector employees, we ran a study focusing on the impact of sending personalized letters of appreciation to social workers at home addresses. We randomly assigned half the social workers as recipients of letters from their direct managers, while the other half did not receive one.

The letters contained two sentences of positive feedback: The first sentence was selected from a menu of options such as “Your work has consistently had a positive impact on the children you work with” and “Your continued dedication and hard work make children and families in the region better off every day,” while the second sentence was written by the managers themselves. In this way, we ensured that the letters were reasonably standardized but still personalized.

What did we find? One month after this simple intervention, the social workers who received a letter reported feeling significantly more valued, recognized for their work and supported by their organization than those who didn’t receive a letter. The workers’ well-being, sense of belonging and intrinsic motivation were also positively affected by the intervention.

Clearly, symbolic interventions can be effective. But to maximize their effect, it’s important to customize these efforts to your organization’s unique context. Research suggests that there are a few key factors managers should consider when trying out low-cost symbolic awards:

The messenger

One of the most important considerations is who the award will come from. Management should consider where there might be current gaps in feedback — perhaps employees do not interact much with the beneficiaries of their work, or with senior leaders in their organizations — and should prioritize notes of appreciation from these groups.

Timing

It is also important to think about when the symbolic gesture is likely to make the biggest impact. For employees whose daily workflows have become increasingly stressful and unpredictable during the pandemic, daily recognition of the impact of their work could well be effective, while in other environments daily feedback may start to feel forced and repetitive. Research suggests that recognizing your employees can be particularly effective at key temporal landmarks. For example, a thank-you note sent at the start of a new quarter can serve as a booster shot of motivation when employees need it most.

Make it public

Private feedback is appropriate in some situations, but public recognition—such as awarding certificates during a team meeting—can often be a cost-effective way to motivate the entire team. Public recognition can feel more significant to the recipient, and it can boost motivation among all employees, including those who aren’t being recognized. In one field experiment, when thank-you cards were publicly awarded to the three top performers in small work groups, researchers found that performance increased not just for those top three performers, but for all members of their group. Still, it’s important to consider both the positive and negative signals that public awards can send to employees: Another study found that recognizing employees publicly led to negative social comparisons that reduced performance among those who did not receive an award.

Details matter

YouR employees can tell the difference between a rushed job and genuine appreciation. To make sure your symbolic interventions are well-received, it is important to pay attention to the details. For example, in our studies, the letters of appreciation were signed in ink by a direct manager and mailed to employees’ homes. A blanket email would have been much less effective.

Start small

Instituting symbolic awards shouldn’t feel like a daunting task. The whole point of such interventions is that they’re cost-effective, easy to implement and can go a long way. If you’re not sure where to start, try sending a short note to an employee expressing gratitude for his good performance or publicly recognizing his contributions in your next team meeting.

Effective symbolic awards must be designed with a specific workplace context in mind. What might be effective in one environment might not translate to other contexts. Furthermore, our research should not be misconstrued to suggest that symbolic awards could take the place of fair monetary compensation. In many cases, research has shown, financial incentives remain an effective motivator. But especially when budgets are strained, noncash rewards offer an appealing and effective alternative.

Moreover, even when funds are available, financial rewards can sometimes come at a cost to the organization’s culture. One study found that in some public sector organizations, merit bonuses actually reduced motivation and morale due to a widespread perception that the performance levels needed to earn the incentive were nearly impossible for many employees to achieve.

In contrast, our research suggests that simple interventions such as writing a thank-you note can make a real impact—without the potential downsides of cash rewards, and with little to no cost to the employer. During these exceptionally challenging times, a bit of appreciation can go a long way.

Shibeal O’ Flaherty is a PhD student in public policy at King’s College London. Michael T. Sanders is a reader (associate professor) in public policy at King’s College London. Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor in the negotiations, organizations, and markets unit at the Harvard Business School.

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