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Gratitude for all: bridging the generational gap

21st Sep 2022
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By now, most organisations have heard of the benefits of recognition in the workplace –  and it’s a constant theme throughout my blogs. But lesser known may be the fact that different generations – so-called Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Z – in fact have different experiences, and preferences, when it comes to recognition at work.  

That’s exactly what Gallup and Workhuman’s recent global survey found. By understanding the key differences and similarities between younger and older employees’ recognition needs, as well as the gap in the recognition they experience, HR leaders will be able to build tailored and effective recognition programmes to suit all their employees – leading to a lasting, positive company culture founded on mutual respect and gratitude for everyone.  

The risk of inequitable recognition  

The simple act of giving and receiving gratitude in the workplace can have a huge impact on employee experience and company culture. When recognition is done well, employees are five times as likely to feel connected to their culture, 73% less likely to “always” or “very often” feel burned out, and 44% more likely to be “thriving” in their life overall.  

But when recognition is clearly inequitable across an organisation, this can have a damaging effect on employees – especially for those who feel they are under-appreciated. Our research with Gallup found that younger employees need more recognition than older generations. Younger employees prefer high-frequency recognition and tend to also have a larger gap between their preferred and actual levels of recognition at work.  

Only 10% of Generation Z employees strongly agree that recognition is a pillar of their workplace culture – about half the rate of older generations – even though they report receiving the same quantity of recognition (or more) as older employees. So the issue lies in the gap between the frequency of recognition they require, versus what they receive – not simply the fact that they are not receiving recognition (they are).  

It is actually managers – who are more likely to be in an older demographic – that are the least likely to strongly agree that they receive equitable recognition. Managers also experience the greatest imbalance between how much recognition they give compared to how much they receive, reporting that they give recognition three times as much as they receive it from their own managers, supervisors or leaders, and 2.5 times as much as they receive it from their own peers.  

Appreciation for all 

There are a variety of different factors as to why different age-groups – and indeed individuals – may need different levels of recognition. What’s important is that HR leaders take the time to listen to and understand what works best for their own employees. Doing so – for example through regular check-ins – will ensure that employees feel valued and appreciated, and will enable employers to develop a recognition programme tailored to their needs. 

Workhuman and Gallup’s global survey found that, when done well, recognition has a positive impact on all employees – no matter their age or tenure. Even those older generations whom, our research showed, need less recognition, still benefit when they are recognised frequently – experiencing a boost in engagement, wellbeing, and sense of belonging at work. In fact, when employees strongly agree that they get the right amount of recognition for the work they do, they are four times as likely to be engaged at work. Higher employee engagement and wellbeing inevitably lead to higher productivity – so implementing an effective, tailored recognition programme will not only improve the employee experience, it will also ultimately improve the business’ bottom line. 

So, how can employers ensure they get this right? 

The solution 

Workhuman and Gallup’s global survey identified five key pillars of recognition: namely, recognition should be fulfilling, authentic, equitable, embedded in culture and personalised. In order to meet differing employee needs – whether due to generational differences or other factors – HR leaders need to know how to apply these pillars. Here are my top tips to get started: 

  • Lead by example: Leaders should model the impact of recognition by actively giving and receiving recognition in front of others. When leaders clearly show that they themselves value recognition, it will encourage managers and employees across the organisation to do the same. And the more people across an organisation that are actively engaged in recognition, the greater the impact it will have.  
     
  • Tailor recognition and rewards: Longer-serving employees may have become accustomed to more routine forms of praise – or even a lack of recognition entirely. Recognition can be made more meaningful when it is directly connected to the work an individual is doing. For example, effective recognition for a newer employee may be praising them for learning a new skill or tool. For more tenured employees, it may be a reward for consistently producing quality work. Organisations can also implement an awards tier system to ensure that rewards and recognition are given consistently, and equitably, based on different levels of achievement.  
     
  • Allow for customisation: It would be impossible to create a recognition programme that is perfectly tailored to every single unique individual – particularly for larger organisations. What’s more, some employees may not be comfortable with openly expressing their recognition needs. That’s why it’s important to embed some level of customisation or flexibility within any recognition programme – so each employee can confidently give and receive recognition. This will ensure recognition improves belonging and inclusion at an organisation, rather than exacerbating any existing inequities.  

The power of simple gratitude 

Recognition positively impacts everyone – regardless of individual preferences. Whether employees prefer a private "thank you" or public praise, recognition ensures everyone feels valued and appreciated – and it creates human connection even in the ‘new normal’ of hybrid and remote work environments.  

All of this means that an effective recognition programme vastly improves the employee experience – and business outcomes as a result. Employers that take the time to understand their own employees’ needs and implement a tailored programme now, will reap the rewards in the long term. 

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