When your employees do something awesome—whether it’s finishing a project three weeks ahead of time, figuring out how to streamline a process, or just talking down an angry client—you, as a manager, want to reward them.
Except, if you’re not the top dog at your company, you may not be able to dole out free days off or give your employees hefty bonuses. But as it turns out, the secret to employee happiness isn’t rooted in those things anyway. In fact, one of the most effective ways to reward your employees is by simply recognizing their hard work and accomplishments.
A study by Bersin and Associates revealed that companies that provide ample employee recognition have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates than companies that don’t—a good sign that those employees are happier. Plus, basic psychology indicates that employees who are affirmed for good behavior are more likely to repeat those actions—and that, in the long run, will build a stronger company.
Now, affirming your employees may sound simple, but before you start rattling off compliments, follow these tips to make sure your efforts at recognition are as effective as possible.
Wait Until it’s Well Deserved
Remember when you played soccer in second grade, and everyone on your team received a participation trophy at the end of the season? Sure, it was a nice gesture, but since everyone received one, it didn’t hold any real significance. But then, in high school, you were named the MVP of your entire team—and since only one player was awarded that high honor, it was a much more meaningful achievement.
The same is true for employee recognition. Compliments tend to lose their meaning if they’re given out just because, or if they’re distributed evenly across the team for no reason other than to mitigate hurt feelings. That means: Just because you want to call out one employee for a stellar accomplishment doesn’t mean you have to figure out a way to recognize every other team member in that same moment.
Yes, employee recognition is meant to be a motivational tool, but if everyone in the group knows they’re going to get a “good job!”—what motivation does that create? Everyone should be recognized at some point, of course, but each one only when he or she truly deserves it.
Choose Your Delivery Method Wisely
To some employees, the best recognition is when it’s presented in front of the entire company, acknowledged by everyone with a roaring round of applause.
But for other employees, public recognition is embarrassing and awkward—and they would much rather it come from a one-on-one meeting in the privacy of your office. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to get to know your employees well enough to figure out individual personalities and preferences.
Surprisingly, recognition doesn’t always have to be verbal—it can also be effective when it comes in an email. I once had an employee who, on her last day, emailed me a heartfelt note about how much she appreciated my leadership and dedication to the team. The kicker? She copied my boss and a few other supervisors on it, to make sure they knew, too. So even though it was communicated electronically, it was personal, sincere, and recognized by others.
On that note, whichever method you choose, it’s important to consider who you’re praising your employee in front of. Even an employee who doesn’t enjoy a public round of applause will likely appreciate you recognizing her accomplishment in front of the SVP or regional manager—whether you accomplish that by copying that higher-up on an email or by mentioning it in a company-wide meeting.
While “good job!” and “awesome work!” may sound motivational enough, employees appreciate recognition most when the meat of the compliment is specific to the accomplishment and acknowledges why it was important to the company. For example, let’s say you had an employee who went the extra mile to land a new client:
Good: “Thanks for your hard work, Cathy!”
Better: “Thanks for putting in so much hard work to win over that new client, Cathy!”
Best: “Cathy, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your hard work to land the new Smith account. We’ve been after that account for several months, so you really stepped up to close an important deal. This is a huge win for you, our team, and the entire company.”
In this example, the “good” version is just too general—that compliment could be aimed at any person or task. “Better” mentions the specific accomplishment, which is an improvement, but “best” is the obvious winner. Not only does it mention the particular achievement, but it explains why it was so important and who benefited from it—and that’s a lot more significant than a general “good job.”
Obviously, a significant amount of recognition should come from you—the employee’s direct manager. Since you interact with your staffers on a daily basis, you objectively see the work they put into their projects every day, their interaction with other teammates and clients, and the attitude they display along the way.
But, in addition to that, Bersin & Associates recommends that recognition should come from an employee’s peers. After all, co-workers often understand the day-to-day work of their counterparts better than anyone else in the organization.
While you can’t force employees to recognize each other, you can help create a culture where recognition is common and encouraged. For example, when you hold a team meeting, ask employees to share examples of when they noticed a co-worker going above and beyond. Or, designate a public whiteboard as a wall of recognition, where employees can jot down their co-workers’ accomplishments for the rest of the team to see.
Now, if you’re wondering how often you should recognize employees—well, suffice it to say, have you ever heard an employee complain about being appreciated too much? As long as your recognition is specific and deserved, don’t put a limit on how often you shower it on your team.