The Science Behind Employee Recognition


May 3, 2022

Taryn Hart

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Practicing recognition in the workplace improves employees' mental well-being, and increases their motivation to contribute value to their organization.

Receiving recognition through Kudos triggers the brain to release "happy chemicals", like dopamine and serotonin.

Table of Contents

Human Beings Need Recognition

In 1943, Abraham Maslow theorized that human beings are motivated to make decisions based on a hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy can be viewed as a pyramid, with basic physiological needs like water and food setting the foundation; then our need for safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. A core requirement in the esteem level of this pyramid is appreciation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 

Human beings feel the need to accomplish things, and be appreciated and recognized for those accomplishments. In addition to feeling accomplished, we need to know that our contributions to the world are valued. Without this recognition, we begin to feel our hard work has no purpose. And without purpose, we feel unappreciated, undervalued, and unmotivated.  

What Happens in Our Brains When We Feel Appreciated

Human beings are wired to crave connection, belonging, and acceptance. When we experience appreciation and gratitude, our brains release dopamine and serotonin. These are crucial neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel ‘good,' regulate our emotions, and respond to stress. Gratitude acts as a catalyst for these neurotransmitters, and actively experiencing gratitude and appreciation allows us to manage our stress levels better.

Feeling and expressing gratitude activates several parts of the brain. Verbalizing thoughts of appreciation and gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for positive emotions and decision-making, as well as reward and motivation. The more we practice expressing appreciation, the more we activate these gratitude circuits in our brain. Overtime, it takes less effort to stimulate those pathways.  

Scientists also suggest that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves. When we give and receive ‘thank you’ notes, our brain automatically produces motivational thought patterns. This means that practicing recognition in the workplace improves employees' mental well-being, and increases their motivation to contribute value to their organization.  

The Relationship Between Recognition and Well-Being

Employee recognition promotes positive psychological functioning (PPF) and its absence worsens it. Positive psychological functioning is comprised of the positive feelings that lead to self-acceptance, personal growth, and social contribution. The absence of recognition can deteriorate an employee’s psychological health, and ultimately their performance.  

Feeling unappreciated affects not only your emotions, but also how you think and act. It’s no surprise that a lack of appreciation can influence your mental health and lead to mental illness. If others ignore what you do for them, it can feel devastating. You might start to wonder why you bother putting effort into a task, or worse, you’ll lose sight of how your work contributes value to your organization.  

In a UK study78% of respondents said they would work harder if they had more recognition. In that same study, 94% said that employee recognition is critical in retaining talent. The solution to keeping your employees is simple — recognize them. 

The Importance of Employee Recognition  

A study conducted on over 1800 employees found the effect of recognition is two times greater with peer recognition than with top-down supervisor recognition. The study highlights the importance of promoting employee recognition in organizations for the impact it has, not only on well-being, but also on the positive psychological functioning of the employees.

Technology now exists to make recognition accessible, simple, and impactful for any organization. Cloud-based platforms that work in browsers and mobile apps allow remote, field, and in-office employees a place to regularly share meaningful recognition.

Kudos, an employee recognition and engagement platform, harnesses the power of peer-to-peer recognition to boost employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve culture, and drive productivity and performance. Employee recognition isn’t just becoming an industry standard, it’s an essential requirement for an employee’s well-being, motivation, and performance.

It’s been almost 80 years since Abraham Maslow theorized that human beings require appreciation. The science behind employee recognition was always there, now it’s time to take it seriously and implement the recognition your employees not only deserve, but need.  

Originally published May 2022. Last updated November 2023.

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Muni Boga: One of Canada’s Most Admired CEOs

“From day one, we have emphasized that Kudos is a safe and open environment for both our leadership and team. This encourages innovation and client-centric thinking – both key drivers in our success. Not to mention, it‘s the right thing to do.”

Muni Boga
CEO, Kudos

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About Kudos

Kudos is an employee engagement, culture, and analytics platform, that harnesses the power of peer-to-peer recognition, values reinforcement, and open communication to help organizations boost employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve culture, and drive productivity and performance. Kudos uses unique proprietary methodologies to deliver essential people analytics on culture, performance, equity, and inclusion, providing organizations with deep insights and a clear understanding of their workforce.

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