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Recognition is Not Rocket Science

Recently a childhood friend shared a story with me and it’s been sticking to me like the white hair from our Ragdoll cats on my velvet black pants. Just kidding. I don’t have velvet black pants but you get the visual.

This friend of mine - she works extraordinarily hard to make magic happen every day, for the business and for her team. Her work ethic and standards for her own performance are off the charts. Her manager pulled her aside at a company event – while on the way to grab a coffee - with the expressed intent to recognize her for her efforts and positive contributions. Now this person doesn’t need praise and feedback to do her job but guess what? She thrives and performs even more when she gets it (hint: she is not the only one)! It was a rushed and spontaneous interaction – maybe only a few minutes. My friend was delighted when her boss began to share the positive feedback, appreciating each word of praise she had not heard recently. Her boss then explained that she was approved for a bonus. Wow, this sounds great, right? Just wait.

“It’s a 1% spot bonus.” You heard me right. ONE PERCENT. Oh, and it’s subject to tax withholdings, of course. What started out as a motivating moment turned into…the opposite. A deflating moment.

Wait, there is more! It’s been over a month and she is yet to see that bonus money in her paycheck.

Was it about the money? No. In her case, 1% is still a good amount of money. It was about the symbolism attached to the recognition, and quite honestly, the lack of personalization to what mattered to her.

The manager’s INTENTION was a positive one. Well done for the idea! However, the execution and impact to achieve that intention missed the mark. He stayed within the lines of the company’s reward programs and criteria, designed to motivate high performers. But it failed. My friend would have been thrilled with the specific words of praise and a $50 bottle of wine. And that $50 would have been less money for the company to spend than the 1% bonus.

Why do we make things so complicated sometimes?

We don’t need to rely on complex and expensive programs to recognize a high performing employee. They can be fantastic at the right times for the right people as a multi-pronged approach but not be THE ONLY way.

As I was using the lint roller to get all the white cat hair off my black velvet pants, I thought of a boss I had in my career who recognized me for my work in a way that I always remembered.

Years ago when I worked for a growing restaurant company, we were all cranking hard to build the brand and the business, he did a small act that was huge. He sent me a handwritten card to my house to recognize my efforts. It was thoughtful, genuine and kind. He also acknowledged my significant other recognizing that the hard work and extra hours needed support from home. He included a gift card to a nice restaurant for both of us to enjoy. It had a wonderful impact on me. It ignited even more motivation, discretionary effort and - wait, I'm going to use the "L" word - LOYALTY - to work hard for him and this organization.

I have shared this story often in my work – as an example that recognition does not have to be hard or complicated. It does not need complex systems and structures with lengthy approval processes. It seems more important than ever these days to know your people and acknowledge them with kind and personal gestures.

As I was reflecting on this story, I realized I should tell him what a positive impact he had on me! I sent him an email and he responded quickly:

This was a nice message to start my day. I am happy to hear that made an impact on you and you are sharing the story and passing it on. I am not sure you know I took it even a step further and over the years I have sent letters to the parents of my team members telling them what a great person their son or daughter is and how well they are doing. Those felt really good to send.”

Did you know?

  • The #1 reason employees leave their jobs is due to the lack of recognition (Source: Gallup)

  • 40% of employees say they don’t receive recognition frequently enough (Source: Office Vibe)

  • When companies spend just 1% or more of payroll on recognition, 85% notice a positive impact on employee engagement. Engagement translates into higher levels of productivity and lower turnover. (Source: SHRM Globoforce Employee Recognition Survey)

Here are my 5 tips to recognizing employees:

1. Show up with your full attention, heart and be specific.

We all want to know we matter. This is true in our personal lives and at work. As a leader – and also as a peer, you have a brilliant opportunity to lift the spirits of your people in a genuine and caring way. Recognition signals that you noticed and their actions matter. It is a form of feedback to motivate, inspire and also reinforce the behaviors or performance you want to see. Take your time to authentically connect and be present, with your undivided attention. Employees can tell the difference if are being genuine or just going through the motion.

Describe the positive feedback with specificity and avoid the general “you did a great job.” When you are specific, the person has clarity of what you noticed and appreciated and there will be higher likelihood they will know what to continue doing well.

2. Really know your people.

Take time to get to know your employee. How do they spend their time outside of work? What do they like to do for fun and enjoyment? What do they care about? If you use behavioral assessments, such as the Predictive Index, what insights do you have about how they prefer to be recognized (public praise and big applause or one-on-one in private)? You could even ask them, “When I want to recognize you for great work, how would you like to be recognized?” I know, it’s such a crazy thought to just ask. I know of a company that has all new hires complete a survey and this is one of the questions they include and share with the manager.

3. Keep it simple and make it personal.

When you know your employee more closely, you can think of ideas that will be personally meaningful – and you probably don’t even need to spend a lot of money! Just like gift giving to a friend or family member, consider the human being and what will make an impact. Are they passionate about a charity? Donate on their behalf. Do they love music and going to concerts? Wow them with a pair of front row concert tickets! And, like my story, never underestimate the power of a handwritten, thoughtful note or card that you can send directly to their home. Some forms of recognition don’t cost a thing – well, maybe the stationery and postage.

4. Be wisely consistent and inconsistent.

Be very clear about what exceptional performance looks like – and how it aligns with your company culture - and be consistent with that bar. Don’t change the performance rules on your people. Yet there is a myth that the rules of recognition and rewards all have to be the same. Phooey. Yes, you need to be mindful of your own unconscious and conscious bias (if you haven’t considered this, I highly recommend online courses that will expand your perspective) and you absolutely must avoid any forms of discrimination. This is the root of where so many programs get complex with criteria. If you are rewarding and recognizing performance across all high achievers, you can be creative and flexible in how you reward them to match their personal interests. Be aware, however, to keep the “range” and “frequency” of rewards commensurate with the performance.

5. Be timely.

Recognize performance quickly, as close to the circumstances and events you want to reward. This signals to the employee that you are paying attention and that you care. You don't want to be late to the recognition party.

Seize the moments to bring sunshine into the lives of others.

May you enjoy your journey, as a leader or a co-worker, making a positive impact on the people who work with and for you, and also consider others you could recognize such as your peers, vendors or many more whose great efforts and accomplishments you admire and appreciate.

In joy and gratitude,


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Eileen Hahn
Eileen Hahn
Jun 08, 2022

Great information. Easy to apply. I love "Seize the moments to bring sunshine into the lives of others."

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