High-performance cultures are built on a foundation of consistent, trusted, and frequent recognition. Recognition is largely the act of highlighting specific actions that both reinforce and support organizational goals and core values, or spotlight contrary behaviors that need correction. Recognition can also be strategic, providing clear insight into which behaviors and values are held in high esteem by leadership. Great managers are typically very adept at providing meaningful recognition to their direct reports.

Recognition is conditional, based on three key elements: job performance, behavior, and attitude. It is a weekly conversation that begins with strengths (statements of praise and acknowledgment of a job well done) and can also include opportunities (needed improvements in performance, behavior, and attitude). Whether done in person, electronically, or in writing, recognition is a positive expression of gratitude about a job well done, expectations exceeded, or the need to better align specific behaviors with the achievement of personal, team, or corporate objectives.

The Importance of Giving Frequent Recognition to Your Employees

Sadly, one industry study pointed out that even though a significant majority of “best in class” organizations see employee recognition as extremely valuable in driving individual performance, only 14 percent of organizations provide managers with the necessary tools for rewards and recognition. In another study, praise and commendation from managers were rated the top motivator for performance, beating out other non-cash and financial incentives by a majority of workers (67 percent). Clearly, recognition is a major driver of high-performance cultures, but we aren’t doing enough to equip managers to do this well and often.

Effective recognition should be given frequently (ideally at least once a week to direct reports) and face-to-face (or by phone, in a thank-you note, or – as a last resort – in an email). It should be given quickly – the longer a manager waits to give recognition, the less it means to the recipient. It should also be specific – a lot of details about why the praise was deserved. It can also be strategic and include details around particularly desired behaviors (such as those in alignment with core values).

Recognition should be given for a range of behaviors, for example, when an employee:

  • Exceeds expectations
  • Mentors others
  • Leans in to help when they see a need
  • Behaves in a way consistent with organized core values
  • Innovates or offers suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness or efficiency of a process or product
  • Acts like an owner (such as conserving organizational resources, engaging fully in a project, or showing initiative to improve the business)
  • Supports a positive workplace attitude and demeanor

Using Recognition as a Tool to Improve Employee Behavior or Performance

Recognition can also be used to redirect an employee when they need to do something differently in order to achieve a better outcome. The objective is not to pamper the employee. It is instead to recognize that some portion of their effort was well intended (and executed), just not all. When leaders only focus on failure, employees are more likely to describe the process as unfair and to become defensive or despondent.

Strong leaders are more interested in redirecting future behavior than blaming a direct report for past behavior. If this recognition opportunity becomes too detailed, it probably means that a more formal feedback conversation should be scheduled.

When I ask managers in our workshops what employee behaviors they could recognize more often, these top themes emerge: volunteering to help out others on the team, coming in early or working outside of normal business hours, working collaboratively to achieve end goals, going above and beyond what is expected, and demonstrating behavior reflecting company core values.

Leaders at all levels in the organization can increase employee engagement by looking for and recognizing when they see examples of employee discretionary effort and performance that is well aligned with company goals and core values. The behaviors they look to recognize don’t need to be extraordinary (there won’t be enough of them), just exemplary (admirable and commendable).

Key Takeaways

  • Recognition is conditional. It is the acknowledgment of an employee’s performance, behavior, or attitude. Employees need to receive specific and timely recognition from their manager at least once a week.
  • Employees don’t need to go above and beyond every single day to earn recognition. Look for small ways employees offer up discretionary effort.
  • Recognition can also be used to effectively redirect an employee when they need to improve behavior or performance.