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How to Bridge the Generational Gap in Recognition

How to Bridge the Generational Gap in Recognition

by Emily Lorenz

Story Highlights

  • Younger workers want more frequent recognition than Gen X or baby boomers
  • Recognition supports retention and development
  • Effective recognition is meaningful and connected to performance

Employees' wants and needs are changing -- and no organization is impervious. Among the changing needs of U.S. employees is a strong desire among younger workers to be recognized for the work they are doing.

While all workers want more than just a paycheck, younger employees feel it more intensely. They thrive with more frequent recognition -- the type of rich, consistent recognition that an annual review cannot afford. Plus, they're more committed when they feel valued as people who bring something unique to the table -- and they're willing to leave for a workplace that meets these needs.

In fact, employees are four times as likely to be engaged at work if they strongly agree that they get the right amount of recognition for the work that they do. And the importance of meaningful recognition holds true across all generations.

The challenge is that older workers (many of whom hold leadership positions) tend to feel differently about how often they want recognition. A study conducted by Gallup and Workhuman reveals that younger employees are more likely to say they want frequent recognition than older employees. For instance, Generation Z employees and younger millennials (born 1989 or after) are 73% more likely to say they want recognition at least a few times a month compared with baby boomers (born 1946-1964). In contrast, Generation X (born 1965-1979) and baby-boomer employees are substantially more likely to say they never want recognition, compared with Gen Z and millennials.

Simply put, most younger workers crave frequent recognition, whereas about half of boomers and Gen X want recognition at least a few times a month. Based on these findings, it's wise to err on the side of providing more recognition than less, but these data suggest the real magic is in discovering how each employee wants to be recognized.



Explore the Gap

A range of reasons could explain why Generation X and baby boomers are more likely to say they want less recognition on the survey. Perhaps baby-boomer and Gen X employees truly do not want to be recognized as often, or maybe they do and are just afraid to admit it. It's possible that different cultural and social expectations -- get the job done, get your paycheck and put food on the table -- are at play and recognition has been written off by older generations as a frivolous want instead of a foundational workplace need.


Baby boomers and Gen X employees are nearly twice as likely to be senior leaders compared with millennial and Gen Z workers and 22% more likely to be responsible for a budget and have control over what happens in the work environment -- whether they're visionary leaders or managers setting the tone for local culture with their direct reports. This means older workers generally have a greater influence on how recognition is given and received in the workplace. And like all leaders, their personal expectations, values and beliefs affect their decisions. When it comes to recognition and feedback, they tend to give praise in accordance with their preferences -- because they perceive that their peers and direct reports expect similar things out of their jobs.

In fact, Gallup and Workhuman's study found that people who never want to be recognized themselves give recognition less frequently to others.

Still, all leaders -- regardless of age or experience -- should understand the workplace conditions that predict engagement, retention and excellence. And there's no denying that recognition is linked to improved outcomes, including retention, across all generations.

Recognition Supports Outcomes That Matter

Recognition (when done right) has a positive impact on many aspects of an employee's personal and professional life. Even people who say they never want to be recognized experience a boost in engagement, wellbeing and belonging when they're recognized frequently (regardless of age or tenure).

Employees are four times as likely to be engaged at work if they strongly agree that they get the right amount of recognition for the work that they do.

Here are two major trends from Gallup and Workhuman's recent study:

1. Recognition supports retention and employee commitment.

The relationship between recognition and employees' intent to stay is particularly powerful because younger workers not only expect recognition but also pose a greater flight risk. The study found that Gen Z and millennials are 82% more likely to be watching for, or actively looking for, job opportunities than Generation X and baby boomers.

2. Recognition encourages employee growth and development.

Recognition helps employees learn and advance in part because it's a coaching and behavioral tool that shows them what excellence looks like.

Gallup and Workhuman also found that:

  • Employees who strongly agree that they receive the right amount of recognition for the work they do are 4x as likely to say there's someone at work encouraging their development.
  • Employees who strongly agree that they receive "authentic" recognition are 5.2x as likely to envision a path for growth in their organization.

These findings are pertinent as leaders attract, engage and retain newer generations of talent. Younger employees are less likely to see opportunities to grow at their organization than older workers -- and more likely to leave for career development.

The Solution

There are five pillars of effective recognition that leaders should consider, as discussed in Gallup and Workhuman's 2022 report Unleashing the Human Element at Work: Transforming Workplaces Through Recognition: Recognition should be fulfilling, authentic, equitable, embedded in the culture and personalized.

Younger employees are less likely to see opportunities to grow at their organization than older workers -- and more likely to leave for career development.

How exactly can the five pillars be applied to address differing expectations for recognition?

Show it.

If the stereotype "I don't need recognition to be motivated" is running rampant in your organization, you should take steps to fix it now. Our results show that recognition, when done right, has positive effects on all types of employees. Leaders should model, or showcase, the impact of recognition by actively giving and receiving recognition in front of others. Showing the rest of the organization that you value it will encourage others to value it themselves.

Connect it.

Your most tenured top performers may be used to never getting recognized or may be accustomed to ritualistic or routine forms of praise and acknowledgment. Recognition can be made even more meaningful by creating mindful connections between the type of work they are doing and the recognition they receive. For newer employees, recognition may look like an acknowledgment that they have mastered a new skill. For tenured employees, recognition on a similar project may look like a reward for producing quality work consistently. Employees at different stages in their careers will have different recognition needs based on the style and type of work they are doing.

Customize it.

Our research shows that only 10% of employees have been asked by someone at work how they like to be recognized for their accomplishments. It's possible that employees who say they never want to be recognized have yet to experience a recognition moment that is personally tailored to them. Employees may not feel confident speaking up about how they want to be recognized for fear of seeming like they need to fuel their ego or receive frivolous attention. Understanding that recognition is not a one-size-fits-all approach can help you tackle everyone's differing expectations and let employees feel heard in the process.


Retention might seem like an unsolvable puzzle -- an unending struggle that's just part of doing business. But for many leaders, an effective remedy is right in front of you, and it can be implemented for free.

The link between recognition and turnover holds across age groups, industries and company sizes. Recognition positively impacts everyone -- even employee groups that feel differently about recognition. Whether people prefer a subtle "thank you" or public praise, recognition is a tool that supports business performance -- and it connects people in a time with fewer hallway conversations and impromptu run-ins at the office.

Best of all, recognition can be implemented easily, quickly and effectively.

Create an organizational culture that recognizes great performance.


Emily Lorenz, Ph.D., is a Methodologist at Gallup.

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