Recognition That’s Contagious

Dow’s Johanna Soderstrom shares the secrets to creating a global culture of appreciation. 

By Debbie Bolla

Having a recognition program that’s “nice to have” was no longer enough for The Dow Chemical Company. Corporate Vice President of Human Resources and Aviation Johanna Soderstrom and her team understand the critical impact that providing meaningful recognition to their more than 50,000 employees has on the bottom line. That’s why in 2013, Dow partnered with O.C. Tanner to evolve their service-driven rewards program into one that encourages a global culture of appreciation.

“In the beginning, recognition was just something that we had since we knew it was an important motivator for employees, but it turned into something that we felt was strategically important,” explains Soderstrom. “We turned it from a check-the-box activity to a cultural shift.”

How? Dow launched a global, multifaceted program called Accelerate Great with the help of recognition strategies provider O.C. Tanner. The focus is on creating meaningful experiences for employees. This means managers and leaders are held accountable for how they acknowledge their teams.

“If your praise is general, it’s really missing the mark,” explains David Sturt, executive vice president of O.C. Tanner. “It needs to be specific. Employees want to know that their work is really valued.”

Sturt and his team helped drive home the importance of meaningful recognition by speaking and presenting at Dow’s leadership events in locations all over the world, including Mubai, Switzerland, and Germany, among others. “Once you share with a manager or leader how recognition works, the data behind it, and effects of what you are doing, you will start to see a mind shift,” he says.

Sturt says employees can be sensitive to recognition moments that are insincere. For appreciation to have an impact, it needs to come from a personalized place. For example, Soderstrom shares an instance where a manager gave an employee—who was particularly fond of a soft drink—a squeezable Mountain Dew can, because she crushed it—a cute metaphor and reminder of a good well done. This type of recognition shows how well this leader knew what their employee valued.

“How can a crushed soda can mean anything to anyone?” quips Soderstrom. “But it was the best recognition she could have received.”

Another tool that has had a huge impact at Dow is e-buttons or e-pins. Employees can create and share personalized e-buttons with others to call out hard work (see Figure 1 on page 13). Employees showcase earned e-buttons on their individual pin board and “wall of fame.” This approach has been extremely well-adopted. In fact, formal recognitions occur every three minutes at Dow globally.

“Once you see the effect and what recognition does to your employees in terms of increasing engagement, drive, motivation, and output, it becomes contagious,” says Soderstrom. “It’s something that people want to be a part of, and that’s where you spread the culture.”

Other unique approaches to Dow’s program include an annual Employee Appreciation Week and a legion of Appreciation Champions that provide critical feedback to help grow and develop the program.

By making recognition a strategic imperative, Dow gets more from their program. The business case for its new approach was based on the impact that appreciation has on employee engagement. “Engagement can be translated directly into growth,” says Soderstrom. “When we made that link and the impact was very evident, we knew we could drive engagement, which has an impact on growth if we do recognition right.”

And the needle is showing that Dow is certainly doing it right. Results from its annual survey show that employee engagement is hitting 80 percent—and its recognition program is a clear driver.

Global Considerations

With nearly 50,000 employees in 180 countries, the global nature of Dow’s workforce was a main consideration for its employee recognition program. The solution? A global platform with local execution. The technology behind the program was standardized across the organization, but leaders in each country could determine the specific approaches that would work for them. For example, Sturt says it’s more commonplace for a recognition moment to be very public in India—it would likely feel like a celebration. Whereas in Germany or the U.K., a more understated approach would be more appreciated. Soderstrom says advice like this shows how integral O.C. Tanner was to helping Dow ensure appreciation approaches were relevant to employees across the globe. And the results show it’s working: global participation increased 11 percent in 2015.

Posted October 11, 2016 in Engaged Workforcein Performance Management & Rewards

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