3 Ways Habit Loops Keep the Dust Off Your Recognition Program

June 13, 2016 Chris Spann

As employees, as executives, and as people we are excellent goal setters. Forty percent of us even make New Year's resolutions every year. For a company struggling with employee engagement their goal might be to improve employee recognition habits. Unfortunately, despite our good intentions only a saddening 8% of resolution makers actually manage to keep them.So the question is—what’s happening to the overwhelming majority of people who fail to meet our aspirations? An understanding of what habits are and how they form can make a huge difference in making goals come to fruition.  

Several years ago, I was stuck in bed with a 103-degree fever when I saw an infomercial for a product some of you might remember; a blender called the Magic Bullet. In the infomercial a delighted older couple chops meat, dices vegetables, and makes smoothies in seconds, claiming that they now have the motivation to cook every day. Eager at the time to become an extraordinary home chef, I bought the blender, used it *maybe* twice, and watched it accumulate dust over the course of the next few years.

Forming habits is really, really difficult.

So what on Earth does a made for TV blender have to do with your employee recognition program? Your company's desire to build a culture of recognition isn’t that different from my desire to cook more often. The key to turning our aspirations into successful results isn’t  to purchase a tool and wait expectantly for sparks to emerge, the key is  to formulate everyday habits. I’m not going to delve into the benefits of using employee recognition in this article, we have an excellent eBook that goes into those details. Instead, I’m going to provide you with some proven strategies about how to effectively build recognition habits as part of your program and ensure it doesn’t collect dust like my Magic Bullet did.

If you want your employee engagement program to produce results, you’re going to need to make recognition part of your routine. Habits consist of a three-part psychological pattern. First, there is a cue or trigger that tells your brain to shift to automatic processing (something you do without thinking about it). For example, for coffee drinkers, coming into the office, setting down their bag and turning on their computer might act as the cue. Second is the behavior itself. In this example going to the coffee shop to get your morning coffee. Third is the reward. In this case, the reward is a feeling of alertness (anything the brain enjoys so it can remember these steps going forward). When we complete our workdays with alertness and productivity, maybe even nailing a big presentation, our brains remember the entire habit loop as a pattern that lead to those positive memories. 1

"The best way to change a habit is to understand its structure—that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change."

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

As you are evaluating employee recognition platforms and planning your program, think tangibly about each part of the habit loop, and what actions, behaviors or events will align with each step. Your goal should be for employees to store recognition into the ‘automatic processing’ portion of their brain, so it becomes second nature. Perks has an internal employee recognition program and below is a great example of how we’ve addressed each stage of the habit loop:

1. The Cue

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to convince people to recognize each other is that recognition is a pretty abstract request for employees who aren’t already in the habit of recognizing each other. Since it’s not concrete it never reaches the top of their list of priorities.

One solution is what Perks calls a "social recognition feed." Every time a recognition is awarded, a notification is shared on the company’s social wall. So when Julie recognizes Robert for helping fill out her expense report on short notice, everyone gets to see the engagement. This can act as a cue because when people around us are behaving in a certain way, subconsciously our brains want to fit in. The social feed also makes recognition tangible, which is enormously powerful. Instead of presenting what can feel to some like a moral imperative, you're providing a specific, tangible example of the behavior you want the participants to perform. Whatever your recognition cue is, it should be a frequent reminder of both the fact employees should be recognizing each other, and specifically what that behavior looks like.

2. The Behavior

The behavior itself needs to be really easy. There’s nothing more frustrating when you’re trying to form a new habit than having to use an antiquated platform, comprised of an overwhelming set of steps to complete the task. If recognition feels difficult to your participants it completely undermines the concrete reminders we discussed above as our habit cue.

At Perks, our employee recognition site has an easily accessible sign in screen, and a simple form with three fields that allows us to recognize each other in less than two minutes, and it doesn’t require any training or explanation.  

3. The Reward

At the most basic level everybody loves getting recognized, it's an acknowledgement that you’re performing well at work. But what about recognizing someone else? It’s really important as a program manager or administrator to identify and acknowledge people in your company who are performing the recognition behaviors you’re asking them to, so that employee can complete their habit loop.

At Perks, our program communication features a "recognition rundown" that is sent out weekly. It lets everyone in the company know who received the most recognition, as well as who sent out the most. This is an important reward for the person who sent the recognition because it's a public acknowledgement from the company that they participated correctly and are fueling a cultural change. In addition, every time an employee gets recognized, the recognizer gets a message saying their nomination has been approved; thanking them for their participation.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle

In Conclusion  

Habits are formed in the emotional, memory forming part of our brain (basal ganglia), and if there's any hope for us to mold our employees’ habits, the employee engagement strategy must form an emotional connection between the behavior and the habit loop.  Even for seemingly simple tasks like recognizing a peer, it’s important to realize forming habits take time, patience, and diligence. When you start to plan your employee recognition program, whatever provider or system you use, it’s important to think critically about how every employee will interact with your tools.

Want to learn more?

Read our eBook, Employee Recognition: The Best Bet for Your Bottom Line. 


  1. http://www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/#4835af21304c

About the Author

Chris Spann

Christopher Spann is a Graphic Designer, Content Writer, and Marketer for Perksww.com

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