Size Matters When Recognizing People (but Maybe Not the Way You Think It Does)

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Jan 11, 2021

What’s the secret sauce to creating a culture rife with recognition, one that keeps employees feeling valued, seen, and heard? Many organizations believe it entails ensuring that leaders and managers acknowledge their people’s accomplishments in big ways. 

But they’re wrong. Sort of.

It’s not that grand recognition gestures aren’t powerful. It’s that they aren’t enough. While your employees aren’t moving mountains every day, they are doing a lot of other stuff that often goes unnoticed. The way to create a thorough and organic culture of recognition is through small acts of recognition that recognize everyday behaviors and results.

That’s right, sweat the small stuff. 

Small Acts of Recognition

More than 8 in 10 U.S. employees feel they’re not adequately recognized for their efforts in the workplace. So odds are that your managers aren’t doing enough to show appreciation — likely because they aren’t focusing enough on small acts of recognition. These can include: 

  • Giving employees shout-outs during company Zoom meetings, on Slack, or in emails
  • Sending people a note, card, or email to thank them for their hard work.
  • Providing informal recognition for hitting a milestone, which might include going out for a (virtual) team lunch or happy hour 
  • Awarding workers non-cash rewards for a job well-done, like a gift card to their favorite shop, a movie ticket, or a small gift you know they would appreciate

The combination of personally delivered one-on-one recognition along with public recognition is necessary to build esteem and the larger culture movements. Of course, managers need to know which employees appreciate which type of recognition. The key is to tailor your delivery of recognition to fit into the flow of work. Recognition should feel thoughtful and timely.

In other words, rethink your company’s generic thank-you cards and opt for something more personal and heartfelt.

Recognizing Everyday Actions

Employees should feel valued not only for their everyday contributions and actions, but also for the skills and intrinsic value they bring to the table. The person you’re recognizing, as well as what they accomplished, should be taken into consideration. Recognition is an unlimited resource — you’re never going to run out of it — and there are plenty of things to recognize besides hitting big goals or making deadlines. Here are some examples of what to consider when recognizing people on a continual basis:

  • Quality. If an employee has a keen eye for detail, and they caught and fixed an error or flaw that could have caused problems down the road, let them know about it. 
  • Ethical behavior. Workers who consistently do the right thing are an asset to the company. Let them know how important that is.
  • Productivity. When people consistently, effectively, and efficiently turn out great work, they should know that you appreciate them. 
  • Initiative. Call out employees when they take on duties beyond their usual responsibilities, whether that’s stretching their skills or helping other teams or departments when they’re in a crunch.

Keep in mind that recognition can easily be perceived as insincere. There’s a distinct difference between doing it — and doing it well. 

Like everything else, recognition should be timely, specific, and meaningful to people. When praising an employee, be specific about what you’re praising and why that person’s contribution matters.

What About When Employees Fail?

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “I understand that I should recognize an employee even if their contribution was small. But what if it was part of — or led to — a failure? Do I still give recognition?” 

The answer in most cases is yes. Recognizing positive behaviors, even with negative outcomes, helps eliminate a fear-based culture. And often failing to reach a goal or hit a milestone isn’t an employee’s fault — time constraints, insufficient resources, and other changes outside of one’s control can contribute to missed goals. 

3M Vice President William McKnight sums it up well: “Mistakes will be made. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

When your employees realize that failure isn’t the end of the world, this encourages innovation and teaches them to learn from their mistakes. People will realize they can try new things without fear of punishment for going off the beaten path. 

Sweating the Small Stuff Adds Up

Ultimately, big, grandiose acts or one-off, half-hearted, large-scale initiatives targeted to fix every recognition shortcoming in one fell swoop won’t actually fix anything. Instead, managers need to sweat the small stuff when it comes to recognition. And they should be sweating it on an ongoing basis because a culture of recognition requires continuous and consistent small actions that are meaningful to every employee. 

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