Few things have as powerful an effect on any of us as hearing our boss tell us that they are proud of us, that our work is really good. This is because we all need to know that our contributions count for something—that we are helping the leader and our organization succeed, and that our work has significance. Managers too often disregard how critically important this is to people, how deeply it inspires, and why it’s so essential to building and sustaining high performance. Unlike pay and other financial rewards, being praised and recognized is an expression of care, and this—and not money—affects the hearts in people.
Seeking to make my recognition of people drive the greatest engagement and productivity, I experimented with different approaches and practices. After 20 more years of testing and observing, I concluded there are five habits leaders must develop in order to maximize the effect of recognition and thereby derive its greatest benefits:
1. Only give recognition when it’s earned.
Leadership author Bruce Tulgan wrote a cleverly titled book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, as one of the first guides to understanding the millennial generation (born 1981– 1994). His title refers to the then common practice of awarding trophies to millennial children just for participating in activities like soccer and other sports. The idea of handing trophies to everyone, and not just to kids whose teams won a championship, came out of a belief that it would build self-esteem. It’s since been found to be completely misguided. And it’s just as bad an idea—even out of a generous spirit—to give working adults recognition when it’s not deserved.
Employees must understand what standard of performance a leader expects and also to know that meeting these standards will be met with praise. But the meaning and importance of recognition to people is fully diluted when it’s not fairly earned. Much like a teacher who hands out A’s to every student, the grade rings hollow for students who know they didn’t really earn it. Even worse, it suggests to all those who did that their extra effort wasn’t really worth it—and won’t be worth it in the future. The leader’s job is to hold people to high standards, proactively help them reach them, and authentically honor those whose achievements warrant it.
2. Never ration recognition when it is earned.
We’ve somehow been led to believe that rationing recognition or extending it to just a few people, the top three, for example, is logical and makes good business sense. This idea must be rejected. Your objective as a leader is to make every person on your team effective. To not honor and acknowledge achievement that meets or exceeds the very targets you set for people is the surest way of defeating an employee’s spirit, initiative, and drive.
Unless the leader takes things to saccharine excess, it’s virtually impossible to overappreciate people. As long as praise is earned and deserved, acknowledging performance only has the effect of inspiring greater future effort and commitment. Not praising it is inherently harmful, and choosing to ignore accomplishments in the belief that they’re an example of someone “just doing their job” is leadership malpractice. Reserving recognition just for unique or long-term achievements also undermines people and their performance.
3. Ensure all recognition is genuine and sincere.
The idea that recognition is important seems to be widely accepted in business, but what too often gets missed is the spirit behind the practice. People can sense when a leader is expressing real appreciation, and only when it’s genuine can it deeply affect people. Conversely, when it doesn’t come sincerely—from the heart—the recognition has little chance of affecting someone else’s.
Recognition is an act of giving and of reinforcing the value and contributions of people. Through your words, your intonation, and physiology, make it apparent that you are thriving in your employees’ success, honored by their effort, and that their high achievements matter to you personally. To be clear, this doesn’t call on a leader to gush or overdo the praise. If you truly value people and the accomplishments they make, the right behavior will flow naturally.
4. Institutionalize recognition.
It was an epiphany for me when I first realized people will work really hard to earn recognition. Once I fully understood this, I decided I must institutionalize recognition—meaning that I needed to inform my team what specific performance I would consistently recognize and then deliver upon that promise without fail.
I laid out our goals, emphasized which ones were most important, then created a designated time throughout the year to acknowledge collective and individual achievements. I wanted to make sure everyone who worked for me came to expect that high performance and achievement would be consistently rewarded—to know their great work would always be honored and never overlooked.
I learned the ideal time to honor team achievements is at the start of every month, at a team meeting where all members are present. Call people to the front of the room. Have them stand. Clap for them. Put their faces front-and-center on the screen if they are working remotely. Your goal is to make your recognition a ceremony. Take time to describe the hurdles people faced—tell the team what behaviors led a person to perform so well. Doing this doesn’t just honor the person you are recognizing; it explains to everyone on the team what behaviors you as their leader value most.
5. Routinely encourage people.
The power of encouragement, as an antidote to doubt and fear, is inestimable. Giving people encouragement when they are struggling, worried they can’t measure up or faced with a new wall to climb is the tonic that helps people exceed their own expectations. Encouragement inspires optimism and influences people to become and accomplish more.
There are many ways to accomplish this. Send an e-mail to the entire team to express your confidence in them. Handwrite a note to someone you want to more personally support. (Doing this is extremely meaningful to people. Many former employees of mine have told me they still have notes I sent them years after we worked together). Express it to people directly in meetings, when you are coaching—whenever you sense someone needs it. By encouraging employees, you positively affect their hearts and thereby motivate their greatest future performance.
Excerpted with permission from Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century (Hay House Business, Aug. 2022).