The power of recognition

Communication  Leadership
30 October, 2017

Beyond award ceremonies: how to make your team members feel valued on an ongoing basis

It probably is obvious to you that people who feel valued perform at much higher levels than those who don’t. And team members also naturally tend to look for tangible proof that they are valued. Just like in any relationship, you want to know when things are working and when they aren’t.

Recognition does that. It tells people where they stand.

So, my message this week is on the power of recognition and how we can start recognising our colleagues and team members much more, and adapt our behaviour to be more grateful for their support, effort and performance.

Done in the right manner, recognition can boost morale, engagement, productivity and by extension, the overall performance of the team and organisation. However, recognition needs to be viewed at a deeper and a more meaningful level. Unfortunately, a lot of managers pay lip service and believe that recognition is only about plaques, certificates and generic platitudes.

The added bonus of recognition is that making others feel valued will make you feel great about yourself. If you’ve done this, then you already know that it is the best part. Show people how important they are – and you will feel better about yourself.

Building a culture of recognition is absolutely critical if we are to be an employer of choice.

Data from our In tune engagement survey however shows that recognition consistently falls in the moderate zone and has shown a marginal dip over the last couple of years. If you dig deeper into this, the feedback suggests that our formal organisational level reward and recognition platforms are working well.

The concern comes from the lack of a more informal, everyday, ongoing culture of recognition. It would appear that in our quest to meet our big deadlines and objectives, we sometimes forget to appreciate the ‘smaller’ accomplishments.

As a result, the tremendous support we receive from our team members is often not noticed, and taken for granted. 

What comes in the way of recognition?

So, if the benefits of recognition are so obviously positive, then why do managers shy away from being more open and generous? Some believe people get paid for their work anyway, so why thank them. Or because they don’t want it to be misconstrued as them playing favourites. Or because they don’t want to build up expectations that people should be on the lookout for praise every time something goes well. Or because they are too busy. Or because they are genuinely unaware of the contributions being made. Or because they just haven’t experienced the impact of recognition personally and are therefore unable to understand the need for it.

There, there is also a somewhat traditional mind-set that many managers believe that “sticks” (negative feedback, public humiliation etc.) work better than “carrots”. However, increasingly, a lot of research in the field of neuroscience now shows that rewards and positivity are much more effective ways to encourage desired behaviour than punishments. 

What makes for meaningful recognition?

There are a whole bunch of things that are seen as meaningful recognition. Here are some that I often come across. I am sure you will have your own lists to. So, please feel free to add to this:

  • Being asked for opinion on decisions which impact you / your areas of work
  • Being offered additional responsibility
  • Receiving email from a leadership team member
  • Having access to special information that others don’t have
  • An acknowledgement of your contribution being sent to your family
  • Being promoted
  • Receiving a monetary reward, award or compensation hike
  • Having the opportunity to coach or mentor others
  • Receiving positive feedback from peers
  • Being asked to represent the company in an external forum

Some of these may seem very different from others, and that’s because they are so. There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all when it comes to recognition. After all, this is about people and what they value and that could differ from person to person.

In her book Make Their Day!: Employee Recognition That Works: Proven Ways to Boost Morale, Productivity, and Profits, Cindy Ventrice identifies four basic elements of recognition, which I find quite helpful to use as a reference point.

1. Praise

When you are praising someone, always be clear and concise about what exactly it is that you are praising them for. Also, make the praise ‘just right’ and proportional to the accomplishment; don’t overdo it and don’t underplay it either. This is important because it helps contextualise the achievement. Also, always make your praise timely, and thereby, relevant. Don’t miss the moment.

2. Thanks

This is the simplest and often most desired form of recognition. Just say thank you. And be sincere when doing it. Ask yourself – when was the last time you said thank you? It can make all the difference.

Counsellor and life coach, Dr. Laura Trice, talks about the power of “thank you” and how transformative it can be make another person know what they mean to you, in this great TED talk. Do watch it when you get the chance.

3. Opportunity

There are many ways of showing recognition. Offering new opportunities to contribute meaningfully and learn new skills, is one of them. This works particularly well for people who are inspired to raise their personal bar and push for more. You can also start providing them with more freedom to make decisions. It shows your confidence in them and the willingness to invest more in them.

4. Respect

This aspect of recognition is often overlooked and ironically, it is also more often than not, the most crucial element. Respect is the base of any strong relationship. And you have to build it with your team. Showing that you respect them is the first step. Appreciation will follow.

You could do this in different ways. At a very basic level, this is about whether you are taking the effort to get to know them as individuals beyond the projects that they deliver on. But it could also mean involving people in decisions and showing them that their opinion matters. Like Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, said:

“The more they know, the more they’ll understand. The more they understand, the more they’ll care. Once they care, there’s no stopping them. If you don’t trust your associates to know what’s going on, they’ll know you really don’t consider them partners.” 

Who should do the recognising?

Not surprisingly, many people think it should be the organisation. Plus structured recognition programmes alleviate the worry of what, who and how you should choose to recognise. But it isn’t that simple.

The 50-30-20 Rule, suggested by Cindy Ventrice, says that 50% of recognition should come from managers, 30% from peers and 20% from the organisation.

As a manager, you absolutely have the greatest opportunity and responsibility to provide your team members with the recognition they deserve. Think about it. In many ways, for your team members, you are how they understand and feel the organisation on a daily basis. So, you being the starting point of recognition actually fits in quite well. 

How can you now start building more recognition into your approach? 

Here are some tips (many of these are also covered by Cindy Ventrice in her book):

1. Don’t put recognition on your to-do list

This is not to say that it isn’t as important as everything else on that list. Quite the opposite. It should probably be right at the top. But recognition isn’t something that can work as a check box. You can’t have it up there with a bunch of routine tasks, that if anything, will only get pushed to the bottom of the list. This has to become intrinsic to who you are. Instead, look for ways to make recognition a part of all your interactions. Let it start coming naturally to you.

2. Most meaningful recognition is free

Often, recognition may have you thinking of big award ceremonies and trophies. But most of the really meaningful recognition is actually right in front of you, readily available and free. If you think about it, all it really takes is your time and interest, not big budgets. You can also scale up the impact of your gesture by just thinking a little harder. For example, one thing that really works, is looping people’s managers and team members in when you say thank you; so just copy them on the email.

3. Get to know your team members

You have to get much more familiar with people – who they are, what motivates them, what kind of effort they are putting in, what challenges they face, what they enjoy, and so on. Without this, you can’t quite contextualise the work they are doing or the effort it takes or what and how you should be recognising any of this.

4. Make it personal

Knowing your team helps you make recognition special and personal. It will help you figure out how to make the moment really count. Like Ventrice points out, it’s the thought that really counts:

“People are looking for meaning, not things. They see tangible awards as a vehicle for delivering recognition, but don’t regard the awards themselves as recognition. They’re much more interested in the underlying message behind the reward.”

A little bit more effort can make the difference. For instance, if you are sending a thank-you email, don’t say a generic thank you. Be more specific on what the person has done and why it is noteworthy. Personally, I also like to send hand-written notes for special accomplishments.

5. Encourage people to recognise each other

It’s not enough for the recognition to just come from you. We need to be able to extend this and build a culture of recognition. Peer recognition is very important too. Research shows that many people deeply value recognition from other peers. It just adds to the pride of having your work recognised and noticed by others. So, think about how you can create small occasions for your team members to stop and appreciate each other more.  

6. Frequent recognition works better than grand gestures

Timing is everything when it comes to recognition. So, don’t wait. Do it as frequently as possible, and as it happens, rather than waiting to say a big thank you at the end of everything.

7. Well phrased feedback (especially instant feedback) is invaluable recognition

You may not have thought of it as such, but feedback, especially well-put, can be very valuable recognition. It can encourage, push and inspire people. It shows people that you care.

I am personally trying to use “feedforward” more. You can read more about it in a previous post:

8. You can’t fake it

People can see right through it when you’re being inauthentic. You can’t have templates for this or have someone else write that thank you note for you or pass on the message. That just defeats the purpose of recognition. If it has to work and be meaningful, then it has to come from you.

9. Recognise both accomplishments and the behaviours that led to the accomplishments

Of course, recognise people for what they achieve, but while you’re at it, also acknowledge what about how they did it really stood out. Tell her about the kind of behaviour that led to this, so that they know specifically what it is that is working well.

10. Make recognition a catalyst for results and impact

Use recognition to spur stronger results and impact. Let it excite and inspire. And this can happen only when you make it meaningful and aspirational.

Strong and meaningful relationships are a must for meaningful recognition. We could plan the most elaborate of award ceremonies, but without the basics in place – by which I mean a culture that is strongly rooted in trust and respect – none of this will ever really work.

I look forward to hearing your recognition stories and experiences.


  • Bharathi says:

    Dear Sir,
    My list.

    1. Being asked for opinion on decisions, which impact you / your areas of work
    2. Being offered additional responsibility
    3. Receiving email from a leadership team member
    4. Having access to special information that others don’t have
    5. An acknowledgement of your contribution being sent to your family
    6. Receiving a monetary reward, award or compensation hike
    7. Having the opportunity to coach or mentor others

  • Bala says:

    Dear Mr. Vivek,

    Thanks and it looks like the extract of 25 years of experience in managing teams. Recognition – right time, right proportion and the spontaneity – have worked wonders in my career as well. Have seen people, when rightly recognized, “LEAP” from their levels which worked like magic for their careers.

    I would like to quote one example – when my flat was being constructed in 2002, I used to visit the construction site often. I saw a young lad who went out of the way to handle customer’s need – handling all documents and coordination. Impressed by his ownership, I enquired about him. He hailed from a poor family and had to stop education and start working to support family. He was doing B.Com. in correspondence. With the support of the construction company, I hired him as a contract employee as my organization had a rule not to recruit anyone without a graduation. He completed the graduation subsequently, and today he is working as a Manager in Sourcing for a well known FMCG in Chennai.



  • Hi Vivek,

    Your blog so resonates with our SAAS solution at Appreiz, which redefines talent management using social recognition and feedforward as platform. It exactly provides a context to a recognition and encourages peer recognition and feedforward.


Join the 8AM conversation