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I Was Framed!  What Leaders Must Know About Recognition

I Was Framed!  What Leaders Must Know About RecognitionYeah, I was framed. Not in the figurative sense, like somebody set me up. No, I was framed. Literally.

Recently, I was invited to speak to a local civic organization on the recently released book, Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer. Theirs is a volunteer-supported organization, and the messages of the book have direct application to their future viability and success.

At the end of the breakfast session, the leaders invited me to the front of the space and gave me a framed image. Photos of their presenting it to me were taken with a promise to ensure it lands in the local paper.

How did I react? As many would do, I feigned my appreciation with a smile and cordial gratitude for their gift. All the while, my brain is sizzling in the back of my skull with this overwhelming sentiment of “What the hell?”

I Was Framed!  What Leaders Must Know About RecognitionYou see, token reward items such as this frame mean little to me.

The gesture reminded me that many leaders in any capacity—leaders of paid professionals and leaders of volunteers—have little understanding of how to effectively acknowledge the performance of others. We have bought into the standard, traditional ways recognizing performance has always been done—with tangible tokens and trinkets and certificates and plaques and trophies that supposedly convey some meaning. We lay blankets of words across a group of people, thinking the generic statements will somehow deliver individual value. We have drunk so much Kool-Aid about how people are supposed to be awarded for their good works that we are often blind to our own realities, our own feelings and emotions when we receive recognition for our own performance. We have been conditioned to think that the item, the tchotchke, the future dust collector, even the money, represents all our passion and investment, and we are otherwise disrespectful to even suggest that the “What the hell?” feelings in our heart are real. An entire recognition industry has been built around these fallacies and half-truths, with the purported research to back it up, further embedding the misnomers into our brains.

I am here to commission you to feel these feelings. Roll around in them. Accept their reality. Embrace these two truths. 

Truth #1: Most Leaders Do Not Know the Difference Between ...

Clarity for leaders begins with defining the words associated with performance acknowledgement—appreciation, recognition, reward, and incentive. As leaders see the delineation between these concepts, their interchangeability will no longer exist. Each word will be used on its own to describe a distinctive gesture intended to acknowledge others’ work. 


Appreciation is defined as a general expression of gratitude for presence, demonstrated qualities and characteristics and overall contribution. The key part of appreciation is that it is a general expression, not necessarily tied to a specific performance or accomplishment. Appreciation is sharing basic words of kindness with an individual or group of people. An example might sound like this:

“I’d like to thank everybody on the team for being so loyal to the foundation! Your continued commitment to serving those in need really makes a difference in this community!”

Leaders showing their appreciation is always a good thing. Kind words and thank-yous cannot be spoken enough by leaders. The shortcoming of appreciation lies in these general expressions being the leader’s primary or only form of performance acknowledgement. Broad statements that lay a blanket compliment over a group for their desired traits will ring hollow over time. “You are all so awesome!” and “Thanks so much for doing what you do!” may come from the leader’s heart, but the universal nature of these statements is less likely to reach a team member’s heart. Leaders may appear out of touch with the real performance and impact volunteers deliver when they rely too heavily on general expressions of appreciation. 


Recognition is defined as a specific expression provided in acknowledgement of having met or exceeded performance expectations; recognition delivers intrinsic, emotional value to the recipient. In contrast to appreciation, recognition is rooted in observable performance: a person did something specific that warranted being recognized. Typically, what they accomplished reached or surpassed an established level for their performance.

The desired outcome of recognition as feedback is to deliver emotional value and inspire a repeat performance. The person’s heart is touched by purposeful, descriptive words. The desired behavior is reinforced. As a result, the recipient knows what he should continue to do. Words are the lever in this form of operant conditioning.

An example of recognition sounds like this:

“Troy, I noticed how amazing you were today handing out the water cups for runners during the 10K race! Your smile and words of encouragement you were sharing with runners as they passed the seven-mile water station no doubt inspired a second wind for many in the race! You made sure hundreds of runners stayed hydrated, which is so important for their safety on this humid morning!”

Troy’s efforts are recognized! What gets recognized gets repeated. 


A reward is a tangible item provided in acknowledgement of having met or exceeded performance expectations; a reward delivers extrinsic, monetary value to the recipient. Rewards are external efforts designed to serve as stimulus to increase the likelihood of the desired performance. Rewards have tangible or monetary value, while recognition has emotional value. Rewards can be touched; recognition can be felt.

The terms recognition and reward often appear together in combination as though they are interchangeable. In fact the two are very different. Most notably, one can stand on its own and deliver a return on investment, while the other struggles to deliver a return as a lone factor. This distinction is where some organizations and leaders have been led astray.

Since recognition delivers emotional value, specific words that recognize performance can have a dramatic, positive impact on a person and his or her service. Even in the absence of any tangible reward, recognition has great power to touch the heart and further inspire others. Conversely, a reward given in the absence of words that specifically describe the desired performance worthy of recognition delivers little to no return on investment. The recipient receives a token item and is left to her own intuition to connect what exactly she did that earned the reward. Misunderstandings and missteps in program execution are the reasons so many reward programs bear less fruit than their design hopes to realize. 


An incentive is a factor that drives or enables meeting or exceeding performance expectations by providing predetermined recognition or reward; an incentive may have tangible or emotional value. The difference between an incentive and a reward is that with incentive the recipient knows the deal in advance—he hits the target, he receives a reward or recognition after his performance. The recipient knows what to expect as a result of his efforts. In contrast, recognition and rewards are delivered without prior agreement on the terms. Recognition and reward are delivered without the recipient’s expectation—they arrive as pleasant surprises. The proverbial carrot is the classic incentive—the mule’s efforts moving forward are incented by the dangling carrot. 

Truth #2: Align the Levers with Their Intrinsic Motivators

Now that the similarities and differences of appreciation, recognition, reward, and incentive have been defined, how is a leader to know the right strategies to use at the right time to acknowledge performance? As with so many aspects of leading people, there is no one size that fits all. How an individual prefers to be acknowledged and what she desires to be acknowledged for is unique to each person. This simple life truth is why every structured appreciation, recognition, reward, and incentive program has its shortcomings. There is no way a singular program design can meet every person’s needs, wants, and desires for performance acknowledgement.

What is a leader to do? Go back to Discovery. Chances are the most enriching ways to recognize a person are in some way connected to the reason he chose to perform. It is highly likely that the altruistic and selfish drivers that compelled his quality outcomes will continue to be fueled by recognition that touches those same factors. 

Yes, it is that easy. Understand first that appreciation, recognition, reward, and incentive all work in a uniquely different way. Choose the right mix to pull the right levers for each person on your team. And then align your recognition efforts to the things in their hearts that matter most to them. 

Please Do Not Frame Me Again ...

Confession moment: My reasons for choosing to speak to the group had nothing to do with a frame. Organizations, save your money. Instead, ask the person who offers her time and talents to your organization what matters most to her. If it is reasonable (chances are it will be), do what you can to align your acknowledgement with the answer you receive. It is one of the greatest things a leader can do to reinforce the desired outcomes. 

I Was Framed!  What Leaders Must Know About Recognition Barry Altland is a writer, speaker, thought leader, and author of Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer, a simple guide for feeding the passion of those who serve. Barry blends world-class leadership principles from the for-profit and nonprofit ministry worlds with his own numerous experiences as a volunteer and leader of volunteers to offer a fresh perspective on volunteer engagement. More insights and Mr. Altland’s contact information are available on the HHHE website via

Topics: Volunteers Recognition Appreciation