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I think you need to make the distinction between “recognition” as an act and “recognition” as a program. I can provide recognition for achieving an incentive goal – that is still recognition although part of an incentive.

I’d also argue that incentives are focused on the elite few. In fact, most incentive programs are designed to reward those that achieve a specific goal – that means – everyone has the opportunity (assuming goals are set appropriately.)

And while recognition can be (and should be) done frequently for as many as possible – assuming they demonstrate the appropriate behaviors… too often they are designed into programs that typically reward only the elite – think President’s Club or Millionaires Club for sales people.

Paul gives examples of what I would call double-duty incentives: ones that both drive a specific pre-announced output result and supply personal recognition. Cash can't do that, because it is socially unacceptable (even in the money-grubbing capitalistic USA) to brag about the monster commission you earned. Even allowing the boss to identify you as the top cash-prize winner is not particularly PC.

This is a very helpful article. I would add that there are temporal orientation differences, too. Incentives tend to be forward-looking goal-focused formal programs, dangling rewards promised contingent on the achievement of certain outcome results. Recognition tends to occur after the fact, can be informal and spontaneous and involves public announcement of an achievement, celebrating demonstrated success and publicized in the hopes of inspriring emulation by others. While incentives can be private, recognition is usually public.

The targets make a difference, too. Those lottery or casino winners shown in ads did not play for the recognition. No, their payoff terms required them to permit their success to be advertised as an incentive to others to play the game in the future. Their recognition is an incentive for others to similarly gamble. One wo/man's recognition can be another person's incentive.

Also, lest we forget, incentives are generally taxable while recognition usually is not.

In accordance with Jim's comment, incentives are forward looking mechanisms meant to drive behavior and/or results toward some outcome or goal. Recognition is given after-the-fact. Recognition can be done for meeting the goals of an incentive or for anything else that is worthy of such accolades. While it may be true that some people do things with the hopes of being recognized has the "feel" of an incentive, it doesn't satisfy the requirement that an incentive is mutually understood by the party providing the incentive (and the recognition) and the party being coaxed to achieve it.

Thanks for the great comments, all. You have each added greater clarity around a complex topic. My overriding point is that "incentives" and "recognition" are two entirely different approaches - both with valid, proper roles depending on the goals you want to achieve. Too often, the terms are used interchangeably, adding to confusion in the market and in well-meaning HR pros.

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