Employee recognition: 3 rules great leaders follow

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The fuel. The juice. The ultimate motivator. It’s been called a lot of things. But what is it? It’s the R-word—recognition. For those who work with other people—which is most of you reading this blog post—the concept of recognition is something you must acknowledge and manage with purpose. 

In a recent SMG employee engagement project, we found employees were six times more likely to say their work is both rewarding and meaningful if they strongly agree their efforts felt recognized at work.  On top of that, employees who believe their work is both rewarding and meaningful are the most likely to be engaged—and engaged employees give you their absolute best effort in the day-to-day.

The beauty of recognition is, for the most part, it’s a fairly cheap intervention. In another SMG employee engagement study, we asked “What is the most valuable type of recognition you receive?” and the results were surprising. Words related to pay, bonuses, and raises were mentioned only half as often as the “free stuff”—verbal recognition, saying thank you, and giving compliments. 

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So, how can you master the art of giving recognition?  

1. Consider human nature

It’s critical to realize that human beings are generally predisposed to pay more attention to negative feedback in our environment. (Yes, bosses, you are included in that environment!) This disposition may be linked to an evolutionary phenomenon that helps us avoid danger. A single negative interaction often sticks with an employee or co-worker longer than a neutral or positive interaction. So what’s the takeaway? Choose your words and actions carefully when you must provide critical feedback to employees—especially if that feedback is based on less-objective criteria.

2. Mind your ratio

Research studies often find in successful human relationships—everything from married couples to high-performing work teams—a ratio of 5:1 positive and negative interactions is ideal. The 5:1 means you should have five positive events or interactions for every one negative event or interaction with your employees. Stephen Covey described something similar in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, when he described thinking of relationships as bank accounts. Positive interactions are deposits and negative interactions are withdrawals. Without making enough positive interactions—deposits—you will overdraw your relationship bank account.

The take away this time? Get active in focusing on the positive aspect within your relationships. As a manager, a positive interaction isn’t just praising for a job well-done—but also engaging an employee in a meaningful, human conversation. Ask about their life outside of work. Are they in school? Have they moved recently? Were they recently engaged? Make an effort to know these things about your employees and your efforts will go far.

3. Make it a G.I.F.T.

Make recognition as beneficial as possible by remembering it should always be a G.I.F.T. to the receiver. 

Genuine. Give your full attention to the person receiving the recognition and avoid the temptation to act differently than what’s natural to you. Acknowledge them for activities that aren’t just work-related, but personal accomplishments, too. This lets them know you value and respect them as a person—not just an employee.

Individualized. Understand how your team wants to be recognized—publicly or privately, including their family, or by sending a note to their boss’s boss. If you give the same recognition to everyone in the same way, it’s likely that your good intention will fall flat over time. Pay attention to your team and mix things up to keep recognition meaningful and individually relevant.

Frequent. Gallup research revealed that employees who feel ignored by management are also the ones who quickly become disengaged. Disengaged employees are a major detriment to service standards. To avoid this common pitfall, make a sincere effort to engage in at least one positive interaction with your employees each and every day. 

Timely. Provide recognition as soon as possible when a praise-worthy event occurs. Not only does this increase the likelihood of the positive behavior reocurring going forward, but it decreases the likelihood that your intent to recognize will be forgotten. Over the years, I’ve heard this excuse a thousand times— “I just forgot to circle back with them.” Good intentions don’t produce results—actions do.

Positivity on purpose

The notion that employee recognition improves performance is nothing new. Think of it as a healthy and purposeful habit that re-trains your brain to pay more attention to the positive, and be more measured in the negatives you choose to address. For the next 21 days, I challenge you to track the content of your discussions with just two peers or direct reports. At the end of the 21 days, take a moment and see how many of your interactions were focused on corrective or negative content versus positive or relationship building content. Did you hit a 5:1 ratio?

A parting thought courtesy of Dale Carnegie. “People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards.” And that’s where you’ll see these small changes make the biggest impact.

Want to learn more about engaging employees. Check out our report, Five things we learned from talking to one million employees.

Jeff Jokerst
VP, Client Insights

A parting thought courtesy of Dale Carnegie. “People w
A parting thought courtesy of Dale Carnegie. “People 

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