Once upon a time, the gold watch was given by companies as a retirement gift. It was a sincere sign of appreciation for one’s years of service. Over time, the gold watch has evolved into another “do this, get that” reward for performance. It’s not just a gold watch or a token of appreciation anymore. The reward is contingent on performance and is denominated as points in a catalog that can be cashed in for toasters, tea sets or hundreds of other, “guilt-free” luxury goods.

Offering rewards for performance is a legitimate way to reinforce desired behaviors and outcomes. But along the way, something has been lost. The gesture of sincere appreciation and thanks that the gold watch once represented may have gotten misplaced as the focus of performance improvement has shifted to rewards that are purely contingent on performance. Even the notion of a retirement gift has morphed into earning a “prize” for staying with a company in increments of five years and is financially justified by the savings generated from reduced turnover.

A friend of mine recently received a gold watch for her 20 years of service with her company. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I would characterize her response as mild amusement at what she perceived was a quaint and somewhat outdated attempt at a gesture of appreciation. What was missing in that gesture was a sense of authenticity and a true expression of personal appreciation.

Let’s be clear: most employee recognition and incentive programs have the right intent. They are efforts to say “thank you” with rewards that are linked to a set of desired behaviors and outcomes. But the intent has been hijacked by systems that are geared toward efficient delivery of the program and the reward. The reward experience can be perceived as a Pavlovian exercise: “you did this, so you get that.” As a result, a motion that is intended to say “thank you” suddenly feels more like manipulation and coercion.

How do we put the sincere appreciation and the “gold” back into today’s “gold watches?” Several thoughts on this topic:

1. “Surprise and delight”: Rewards are most sincere when they are unexpected. Just imagine how the recipient of the first gold watch ever given must have felt. That reward had to have been among the most authentic recognition moments in history. Rules and processes are important for fairness and transparency, but to the extent there can be an element of novelty or “surprise and delight,” both the reward and the performance that led to it can become highly memorable moments that deepen a connection with one’s company.

2. Create the right context: link rewards to behaviors, not just outcomes. The need for transparency suggests that rewards should be contingent on behaviors or performance, but they should still be a moment to appreciate the right kind of performance. Think about the kind of behaviors that are a shining moment of someone living into the company’s mission and values. Reinforcing these types of behaviors will have more impact than simply acknowledging someone for hitting a sales target.

3. Personalize it! Make the reward experience a personal moment. My friend who received a gold watch goes skiing in Aspen every year. A unique reward that enhanced that experience for her might have been a “wow” moment, not just a “this was nice, but….” moment. Making the recognition moment about the person behind the behavior is what gets overlooked in many “do this, get that” reward and recognition programs.

4. Finally, and most importantly, create an authentic moment to recognize the person. The recognition moment should be a celebration, not just an e-card or a points deposit on an award statement. Every company talks about valuing people, but their people know if the appreciation is sincere or just HR-speak. Authenticity can’t be faked. Managers need to be versed in the delivery of meaningful recognition involving the employee’s peer group at a minimum. They also need to know the person. If leadership truly cares about the people who work and sell for them, recognition for performance will be more than just a nice ceremony, but a personal acknowledgment.

At a recent industry event, we spoke with a supplier of wrist watches that are offered in current reward programs. He talked about the fact that many people still aspire to own a nice watch both as part of their wardrobe and as part of the heritage they’d like to pass along to their family. A company’s sincere expression of gratitude, regardless of the item, can become an heirloom that spawns a story for lifetimes to come.

A singular award for retirement, like the gold watch, may be a thing of the past, but the commitment to authentic appreciation and creating memorable recognition moments generates returns that go much deeper than the financial returns on performance. Authentically valuing people requires having a foundation of trust, acting on a commitment to develop people, and knowing people as people. It’s about making people feel like gold, not manipulated, but truly appreciated.