Celebrating employee success helps an organization create the infrastructure necessary to ensure great customer experiences for both internal customers (employees) and external customers.

Conduct an Internet search on employee recognition or employee motivation and you will net hundreds of articles and books on the importance of recognizing team members for their contribution and value to a team.

It is even more interesting to look at who is doing the writing. Of course, engagement and motivational specialists tout this information. So do business leaders that have built their companies incorporating this philosophy, such as Zappos, Google, and Apple. The heartening surprises to me were the articles that were not from the usual suspects but the ones I found from such folks as accounting and financial advisors who focused on the bottom line of decreasing turnover and optimizing employee engagement.

Recognition and employee engagement are so critical to the operations and culture of a modern workplace they can only be ignored at great peril. This truth runs deep in government operations, especially when considering succession planning and what is important to the Millennial generation.

The concept of recognition and the impact of an engaged workforce is so prevalent, it is elevated to one of the six essential elements for creating a culture of service, as written in my book, The Science of Service: Six Essential Elements for Creating a Culture of Service in the Public Sector (2010).

Whether a private business, government, or not-for-profit; large or small, there are six essential elements that create the infrastructure a successful organization must have in place to ensure great customer experiences for both its internal customers (employees) and its external customers. The six elements are:

  1. Set expectations. How is the staff expected to conduct themselves with customers, internally and externally?
  2. Train staff. Provide both technical and professional development.
  3. Empower staff. Give people the authority they need.
  4. Measure. Ask customers and employees about satisfaction levels.
  5. Reward and recognize. Celebrate success tied to expectations that have been met.
  6. Improve processes. Good service is fast service. Map out business processes to eliminate waste.

The elements are listed in the order in which they should be developed and implemented in an organization. So why is recognition number five if it is so critical?

Set Up Employees to Succeed

Before you can recognize someone, you need to set them up to be able to achieve certain standards and service expectations. You are, after all, rewarding success. Logically, there is a way to "engineer" success in any situation, including providing outstanding service. First, you define the rules of the game. Second, you provide the skills the person needs to follow the rules. Third, you give them the power to make their own decisions and show they can implement the rules. Fourth, you measure if the goals have been achieved. THEN you reward and recognize the successes.

Celebrate Success With Recognition Programs

Here is an excerpt from chapter 7 of my book, The Science of Service called "Celebrate Success with Employee Recognition Programs."

Rewards and recognition programs can—and should—come in many colors and flavors. There are a lot of different ways to tell people they are doing a great job. You can praise them as individuals and as groups. Reward them publicly or privately. They can be recognized for a job well done during a specific time or situation.

Regardless of how you reward your employees, all reward programs should have several things in common.

First and foremost, the criteria for acknowledgement should be tied directly to the behavior(s) that you want to enforce. This book is all about customer service so guess what criteria we're focusing on? The three core components of great service: promptness, courtesy, and knowledge.

Second, rewards and recognition should be fun. This is an opportunity to celebrate—and celebration at work is critical. I have always been a strong advocate for celebrating great successes and great failures. Part of growing and maturing and getting better at what you do is failing. If you are going to fail, fail big, get it over with, and move on. Here's an example of this principle in action.

Years ago I hired student interns for the summer; they were just out of high school. We trained one of them (for this example we'll call her Debbie) to take calls on a public hotline. Sometimes the callers were upset so Debbie needed a lot of coaching to work through difficult situations.

One day I looked up and she was standing in my office doorway. She didn't say a word. I asked Debbie what was up and she started crying. "I did my best but this man on the phone was so upset and he just kept yelling at me! I kept trying but then he hung up on me!" She felt terrible, thinking she had let down the team and worrying that he would call back and complain about her service. She didn't want to get in trouble.

I smiled sympathetically and told her, "This happens sometimes even when we try our best. We'll work on it some more together." Then I suggested we debrief with the team.

I walked Debbie into the main room and asked everyone to join me in a standing ovation for our young intern. "She has just been initiated by her first really difficult caller thereby formally joining the ranks of our hotline group. Let's give her a round of applause!"

The group really came through, cheering, whistling, smiling, standing, and clapping. Our young intern starting smiling, then laughing. It really made her feel like part of the team.

Then I asked her, when she was ready, to come back to my office to go through the call with me so we could continue to help her mature as a call center staff member and she would be more successful next time.

That's probably not the kind of story you were expecting to hear in a rewards and recognition chapter. But this was a young, impressionable person with no experience. By doing what we did, we used this "failure" to learn and build her self-confidence. As a team, we backed her up on a rough day, and that changed everything for her. We showed her that we understood, that we've all experienced difficult calls, and that she shouldn't take it personally. And we set her up to look at this situation in a positive way so she would continue to improve her skills.

Had we not seized this opportunity to celebrate, we could have lost her—mentally and physically. If she held onto that negative experience, she would have shut down and started avoiding the phones or the team (because she wouldn't feel as good as them). Following a traumatic situation like this, some people begin calling in sick, or worse: not showing up at all! As a student, she could have just quit, which would have left us short-handed for the rest of the summer. Those few minutes of celebration benefited us all in a big way.

Spontaneous moments of celebration and recognition are powerful but they should not take the place of traditional rewards and recognition programs. These should be formalized, and the criteria for awards communicated in advance.

Rewarding people shows people they are valued. Notice I didn't say "makes them feel like they are valued." There's nothing persuasive or phony about a great recognition program. If your goal is to set up a shell program for the sole purpose of pretending that your staff are important, just put the book down and walk away. It won't work.

If you genuinely believe that your team matters—that this organization is nothing without the dedicated work of talented and creative individuals, that every single person, regardless of title, is just as important as everyone else—then please read on.

In government in general, and especially in these economically challenging times, we must focus on extremely low- or no-cost ways to reward and recognize our team. That's perfectly fine! What is unacceptable is saying that we can't afford to recognize great work. It's just not true. The reality is that people are not strongly motivated by money. People are motivated by their innate need to be valued as part of a team.

Champion your vision with rewards and recognition, and your team will thank you in more ways than one.