How to Harness the Power of Peer Recognition 


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Employee recognition can be a minefield.

One key distinction is to decide between rewarding or recognizing good performance. Rewards are a pre-determined “if-then” proposition. If you achieve X result, you get Y as a prize. 

There’s a volume of data that proves rewards often unexpectedly lead to poor performance. Check out Daniel Pink’s excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, for an easy-to-read overview of some of the many studies that show rewards don’t work in a customer service context.

Recognition can be healthy if done right. It’s unexpected and delivered after the performance occurs to let employees know their performance is valued and appreciated. 

So where to start?

The Pitfalls of Recognition

Formal recognition programs are fraught with pitfalls that can demoralize employees. Take the venerable employee of the month program as an example:

  • How do you make the selection process seem transparent and fair?
  • Can you allow repeat winners without prompting feelings of favoritism?
  • What is the impact on morale of not winning?

Even informal recognition can backfire. 

A manager I know once bought his employees donuts to recognize the team for some extra effort. It was so well received that he bought donuts a week later, which quickly started a weekly tradition. 

Soon, the weekly donuts were expected rather than a treat. A few people even grumbled about not getting their favorite kind.

Remember: recognition is unexpected. The donuts no longer recognized good performance once the team expected to receive them.

While researching customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I noticed several companies were putting a twist on traditional recognition.

They were using peer recognition to drive culture.

The Power of Peer Recognition

According to a 2014 employee engagement study by the employee feedback company TINYpulse, peer recognition is the top reason why employees go the extra mile at work.

Shawn Anchor, bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review detailing a study on JetBlue that he co-authored. This study found that “for every 10% increase in people reporting being recognized, JetBlue saw a 3% increase in retention and a 2% increase in engagement.”

Coincidentally, I profiled JetBlue in The Service Culture Handbook for their employee engagement best practices.

There are a couple of easy explanations for why peer recognition is so powerful.

One is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his now famous ranking of basic human needs in 1943. They are, in order:

  1. Physiological 
  2. Safety
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

I’ve written about this hierarchy before, as a way to explain why employees provide better service (priority #5, self-actualization) when they feel like they’re part of a team (priority #3, love and belonging). Peer recognition is powerful because it reinforces a sense of love and belonging.

There’s one more explanation: we take our social cues from others.

Experiments by Solomon Asch and other psychologists demonstrate that we humans instinctively try to conform to the groups we’re a part of. Conformity is often thought of as a negative trait, but it doesn’t have to be.

Imagine a team of employees conforming to a group norm that values outstanding customer service! Peer recognition helps promote this positive conformity.

Practical Examples

I reached out to the Inside Customer Service LinkedIn group for some practical examples of peer recognition programs.

Two members shared excellent examples:

Jeremy Hyde, Customer Service Manager at UCare, wrote: “We have a ‘hats off’ program where people can fill out a brief form on our intranet. Then something is delivered to the Supervisor with the details on who nominated them and why with a little ‘hat’ pin. A lot of people put the pins on their lanyards or tack them up on their cube walls. After you collect 10 you can redeem them for a gift card.”

Jenny Dempsey, former Customer Service Manager at, wrote: “At, I developed the Smiles peer recognition program. Anyone could write a note of gratitude for a coworker and drop it in the Smile box. At each CSR meeting, we would draw a few entries from the box and read them aloud. The people they were writing about would receive gift cards. The team loved it!”

Both examples are simple, practical, and don’t require a lot of input from management. They’re also easy to implement.

But wait! You don’t even need a formal program. As a customer service leader, you can lead by example. 

Recognize your employees for a job well done by thanking them one-on-one, writing a short handwritten note or email, or praising them in a team meeting. At the same time, encourage employees to pay the compliment forward!

Even a simple “Thank you!” from a colleague can be a powerful form of recognition.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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