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Even if it doesn’t boil over to the point of conflict, a lack of recognition and praise in the workplace can seriously affect a business.fizkes/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

When Toronto-based employment lawyer Hermie Abraham meets with clients, it’s usually because a work conflict has escalated to the point that it requires legal advice or mediation. She says managers don’t always realize that such disputes often stem from a perceived lack of recognition.

“Whenever there’s conflict [in the workplace], that conflict is based on people wanting to be seen,” says Ms. Abraham, who worked in human resources earlier in her career.

“Just like in a romantic relationship, if your partner wasn’t appreciative of you or did not make you feel good about yourself – even if they were buying you nice gifts – you would still feel devalued. Innately, all of us have this desire to be seen and heard.”

Even if it doesn’t boil over to the point of conflict, a lack of recognition and praise in the workplace can seriously affect a business. Research shows getting frequent praise can increase an employee’s productivity and creativity and that acquiring a good reputation activates the same reward centres in the brain as receiving money – suggesting public praise can be as motivating as financial rewards.

“The more the acknowledgment of somebody’s contributions, the better they feel and the better they perform,” says Ms. Abraham, noting feedback of all kinds, given appropriately, is essential for an employee to understand their work’s value and stay engaged.

She says those who don’t feel appreciated are less likely to go the extra mile. “You can … see it in people’s work being acceptable and passable, but not at the highest level. They’re not going to bat for the employer, they’re phoning it in.”

She says they’re also less likely to stay at the company long term.

Sarah McVanel, a recognition expert, explains that workers who receive praise frequently are more likely to say their job gives them a sense of purpose – something workers are increasingly rating above financial gain in terms of their priorities.

“Recognition taps into people’s intrinsic motivation,” says Ms. McVanel, who’s based in St. Catharines, Ont. “I want to do a good job because I feel valued; I feel aligned.”

She says workers have been saying for years they value workplaces that are flexible to their circumstances and treat them with respect. However, in the busy workday at many companies, these values often take a back seat to a focus on deadlines and a company’s product.

“We need to recognize people as the individuals and for their contribution, as opposed to having a transactional relationship,” Ms. McVanel says. “We get more from people when they bring their best version of themselves to the table. Our mind cannot come to the table if we are so full of stress that we’re constantly on guard.”

So, what constitutes effective praise? Experts say it’s frequent, positive feedback tailored to the individual’s preferences. While some employees would be honoured to be recognized in front of a group, others would shrivel with embarrassment, so it’s best to give the format some thought in advance, they say.

“One of the first places to start is asking people, ‘How do you want to be appreciated? Do you want it to be public or private? Do you prefer team-based or individual based?’” Ms. McVanel says that it’s key to deliver praise separate from feedback aimed at helping someone improve, so as not to drown out the positive parts.

Even companies that already have recognition programs would be wise to revisit them regularly to make sure they are rewarding the right accomplishments and people, Ms. McVanel says.

She points to Conference Board of Canada research showing that the most common workplace recognition program is for long service, followed by retirement. That means many companies could be going years without formally recognizing people and could be losing talent as a result.

“In our current workplace context, where people change their job 13 times in a lifetime, the whole concept of our main recognition system being tenure-based is outdated,” she says. “When you start to look at what you’ve always done, you may notice the things you most value aren’t being captured in your current recognition program.”

Another factor to consider when giving praise is the age of the audience, says Danielle Bouffard, a senior associate on the communication and change team at Mercer Canada. The workplace consultancy tells its clients to target praise differently when dealing with workers from the five generations currently in the work force: from what it calls the traditionalist generation, born before 1945, to Gen Z, born after 1997.

Ms. Bouffard says millennial and Gen Z workers highly value face-to-face contact and in-person praise, something older generations would be just as happy seeing in an e-mail. She explains that while younger workers are in a phase of their careers where they’re less sure of themselves and looking for guidance and proof of their successes, older workers have competing life priorities and a feeling of workplace confidence.

She also notes that a good way to recognize younger workers is to provide steady career advancement to show there’s a future for them within the company.

“It’s not just about financial compensation,” Ms. Bouffard says. “What a lot of employers fail to realize is a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’ can go such a long way. Everyone is so busy all the time; everyone has competing priorities … When someone has put weeks or months into something and delivered, and people move on [without acknowledging it], it doesn’t sit well with employees any more.”