Leadership Should Recognize Staff

DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON many employers recognize employees for their hard work and contributions throughout the year with parties, bonuses and gifts. These annual rewards are important to boost employee morale, but so is demonstrating ongoing appreciation for individual excellence throughout the rest of the year.

If you have ever been publicly recognized for your workplace contributions, you know how great it can feel. Wise leaders get this and look for ways to treat people like winners.

Decades ago, both Maslow (1943 with his hierarchy of human needs) and Herzberg (1959 with his workplace job satisfaction and motivational factors) identified the basic human need for appreciation and recognition. Today’s employees rank recognition as the most important factor to job satisfaction. Mary Kay Ash (who rewarded her top performers with pink Cadillacs) astutely noted, “There are two things people want more than sex and money: recognition and praise.”

Recognizing worker contributions is the simplest motivational tool available to managers, yet it’s shockingly underutilized. Sadly, according to the Gallup survey folks, 60 percent of American workers claim they have received no praise or recognition in the past year.

Many “old school” bosses balk at giving workers a pat on the back for “just doing their jobs.” They underestimate the importance of visibly appreciating others. Times and generations have changed. Today’s youngest workers, the “millennials”(born after 1980), grew up with doting parents and receiving trophies on sports teams for showing up. This generation is positive, confident and expects encouragement and acknowledgement of their contributions. Bosses who never say thank you will drive away today’s talent. Dissatisfied workers often result in lower morale, motivation and performance and more employee turnover.

Remember that good behavior can be extinguished. If no one acknowledges efforts and contributions, employees may easily conclude it isn’t worth bothering with anymore. Smart managers understand that what is recognized (and rewarded) today often will be done again tomorrow.

An important disclaimer — give acknowledgment where it is genuinely deserved. It undermines your credibility to lavish reward or praise for mediocre or non-performance (i.e., giving someone the employee of the month award simply because it was “their turn”).

Employees tell us in countless surveys that getting encouragement helps them perform at a higher level. Yet less than half of all managers claim they actually give recognition for high performance. They say things like:

  • “They know I appreciate them.” Really, how do they know unless you tell them?
  • “I don’t have the time.” The best leaders make time to motivate their people.
  • “They’re professionals, they don’t need it.” Everyone needs recognition.
  • “I feel uncomfortable giving praise.” Practice would help.

It’s a simple courtesy to recognize a job well done. Don’t assume they know; tell them! A personal, heartfelt thank you is often deeply appreciated and motivating, particularly when it comes from the boss.

One of my favorite recognition stories is a boss who sent a brass band to a person’s workstation to trumpet what she had done to save a key client account. Now that’s recognition!


Consciously think about how to reward success. Make a list of all those whose work for you or with you and the things they have done well or beyond expectations. Walk around and look for what’s right. When you find it, here are tips on how to recognize it.

  • Just say it: “Thank you.”
  • Take the team to lunch to celebrate completion of a project.
  • Bring in dinner for those staying late to complete something.
  • Publicly share recognition and positive customer letters at company meetings, in e-mail, employee newsletters or bulletin boards.
  • Find an object that creatively symbolizes recognition. (Charles Schwab passes around a stuffed giraffe to employees who “stick their neck out.”)
  • Write a personal thank-you card.
  • Follow up with a worker’s suggestion to let them know their idea has been implemented.
  • For any company recognition programs, make sure the “rules” are consistent, clear and fair. Research shows that the most effective company recognition programs are ones that employees design.