The Science of Giving and Getting Recognition at Work

The Science of Giving and Getting Recognition at Work

Recognition at work can sometimes seem like it’s just a nice-to-have - a pleasant but ultimately optional workplace experience. Sure, the thinking goes, getting recognition when you do a good job feels nice, and we should probably all do it more. But should it really be such a high priority for businesses with lots of other important things on their plates?

Actually, recognition isn’t just an extra boost. It’s a basic human need - and one of the most powerful ones. When our need for recognition isn’t met, on a regular basis or at all, we can truly suffer. And when our strong innate desire for recognition is met, there are some powerful impacts for the people who work for you and your business.

So what makes recognition so powerful? It’s the inner emotional and chemical response to recognition that creates this drive for recognition. What does that mean, exactly? Glad you asked - that’s just what we’re covering in this blog post. Let’s dive in!

The Chemical Response to Recognition

You’re working away at your desk on a difficult project when your boss strolls up. “Nice job leading this morning’s project meeting,” she remarks, and heads down the hallway to the coffee machine. How do you feel after that short but sweet interaction? Pretty good, probably. But what’s really behind that sudden flush of wellbeing?

It’s a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is often called the feel-good chemical - it’s released when you eat a delicious meal or pet a cute puppy. It causes feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and is a key part of the body’s natural reward system. Dopamine plays a key role in motivation and attention and helps regulate learning and emotional responses.

The human body also remembers and tries to repeat experiences that cause dopamine release - so experiences that bring that flood of positive chemicals once tend to get repeated. You learn what makes your brain feel good, and you work to make that happen again.

This can cause a negative loop when it’s too much of an addictive substance, but it can also create powerful positive habits as well. Maybe you feel great the first time you try yoga, and that initial dopamine release encourages you to keep at this positive habit. Soon you’re practicing every day, getting your Zen on and increasing your flexibility to boot.

What Happens When You Get Recognition

So what does that have to do with the workplace? (You’re probably not getting a lot of dopamine out of the sandwich you eat for lunch at your desk every day, after all.) Well, receiving positive recognition at work releases dopamine into your brain too.

Even Gallup's chief scientist, Jim Harter, has noted this important feedback loop. "Food, drugs, even good experiences - they all give us a surge of dopamine, and so does recognition."

Being recognized for your good work drenches your brain in dopamine, leading to feelings of pleasure and pride. And your brain remembers this, and is more motivated to take on challenging tasks in the future because you anticipate that next dopamine hit and the feelings of reward it brings.

Pretty powerful stuff, right?

What Happens When You Give Recognition

But the benefits to the workplace don’t stop there. In fact, giving recognition also raises happiness. Studies have shown that if you express gratitude, it can raise your own happiness by 25%. Making someone else feels good makes you feel good too - after all, humans are social beings who (on their good days, at least) enjoy making other people happy.

And expressing thanks for a job well done - whether that’s to an employee or a peer - also has benefits beyond the individual glow you get. In fact, Harvard says that acknowledging gratitude helps people feel a stronger connection to something larger than themselves - like a team or a company.

If you’re looking to build a more connected, supportive, productive workplace culture, encouraging people to recognize each other for doing good work is a great way to get the job done. This is about more than just encouraging managers and leaders to recognize lower-level employees too, though that’s certainly important.

Finding ways for employees to recognize their peers is also powerful - both parties will feel great, and your efforts to build a collaborative, supportive workplace culture will be enhanced.

Why Recognition Matters

Ok, you might be saying at this point - yes, recognition makes everyone feel good. Happiness is nice. But what exactly does that have to do with business? You’re trying to run your business in a productive, profitable way and while feeling happy seems nice, can it really benefit your bottom line in a highly competitive world?

Actually, yes! Recognition has a powerful effect on many important drivers of business performance. It’s not just something that’s nice to have - a strong culture of recognition actually helps save you business money, produce more, and stay ahead of the competition. Here are just a few of the many ways in which recognition helps build a strong business.


Recognition is such a vital need for humans that ⅔ of employees are likely to leave their job if they feel unappreciated. If you want to retain employees (and you should, because the cost of employee turnover is higher than you think), you need to recognize and thank them when they do a good job. When you put it like that, it seems pretty simple, right?


Recognition boosts levels of employee engagement, which is powerful. That’s because highly-engaged teams are 21% more productive than disengaged ones. What could your team accomplish if it were that much more motivated?

Customer satisfaction:

Happy and engaged employees means happy and loyal customers.  In fact, highly-engaged teams have a 10% higher rating in customer satisfaction - and a 20% increase in sales. That’s because when people feel noticed and appreciated, they go the extra mile to do a great job.

How to Effectively Incorporate Recognition

Now that you know how vital recognition is to the success of your business, how can you incorporate it into your workplace culture effectively? Simply instituting an “employee of the month” program or a once-a-year awards ceremony isn’t enough. And saying thank you to every tiny task each employee completes is going overboard - it cheapens recognition down to something almost meaningless.

What’s the right way to approach it, and how can you make it work for your business?

Harvard Business Review has identified some critical components of effective recognition, based on how the brain responds to rewards. “The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.”

That means there are a few key things to think about when you’re developing an employee recognition program.


Focusing on small, authentic acts of frequent recognition creates many micro-moments that are grouped psychologically into larger peak experiences (this is one of the founding principles of the HiThrive recognition framework). Shiny prizes lose their luster quickly - but authentic, timely moments of recognition stay with you for a long time.

Plus, dopamine fades fast. That means if employees go too long between recognition events, motivation and morale begin to fade. Developing a recognition system by using software like HiThrive where employees can receive and send appreciation easily any time helps make those behaviors more frequent, and more impactful.


Your recognition program should be about more than just making employees feel good - it should reinforce the values that your business is about. Recognizing employees for embodying your organization values, like teamwork, excellent customer service, or innovation, helps encourage more of those kinds of behaviors and build a strong, purposeful workplace culture.


While many HR teams and leaders still think of recognition as something that primarily happens from the top down, peer-to-peer recognition is actually more powerful than those traditional forms. In fact, peer-to-peer recognition is 36% more likely to have a positive impact on financial results than recognition that comes only from managers.

And employees truly want to recognize each other - if they’re given the right tools to do so. Giving every employee access to a simple, integrated recognition system where they can thank each other for collaborating on a project, helping on a busy day, or offering support (like the HiThrive system) can yield powerful psychological and financial rewards for your business.

Key Takeaways

Recognizing and appreciating people for doing their best at work every day isn’t just a nice thing to do - it’s actually vital to the success of your business. And since the need for recognition comes from the innate processes of the brain, you can’t afford to ignore it.

Fortunately, HiThrive makes recognition easy. By focusing on positive reinforcement and creating a shared sense of purpose, HiThrive helps increase your team’s engagement and well-being - and that links directly to the bottom line of your organization. Request your demo today to see the power of next-generation employee recognition solutions for yourself.