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  • Writer's pictureIvan Palomino

The Way You Do Employee Recognition Counts more than the Incentive

When it comes to recognizing employees' contributions, many organizations default to tangible rewards like lunches, gift cards, or fruit baskets. While these gestures may seem like a way to show appreciation, they often fall short in creating lasting impact on motivating their employees. So, what do people really need when it comes to recognition?

In this article, we explore the importance of meaningful recognition and provide strategies for managers to design effective recognition programs that inspire and create long lasting intrinsic motivation for employees.

Moving Beyond Superficial Incentives

Randomly distributing gift cards or other material rewards often does more harm than good in the long run. Traditional recognition programs tied solely to end-of-year performance evaluations can demotivate employees who feel they didn't meet the criteria for "high performance" while others did. Instead, a more effective approach is to identify a set of values and behaviors that deserve recognition and clearly define what those behaviors look like in action.

Employee Recognition  - How to do it right

Designing Effective Employee Recognition Programs

To create meaningful recognition programs, consider the following strategies:

Define Values and Behaviors

Start by identifying the core values that align with your organization's culture. Determine the behaviors associated with these values that exemplify good performance. By establishing clear guidelines, employees will have a better understanding of what it takes to earn recognition.

Actionable Behaviors

Take the identified values and behaviors and translate them into actionable steps. Define how these behaviors can be observed and measured in the workplace. This clarity will guide both employees and managers in recognizing and appreciating the desired actions.

Peer-Driven Recognition

Consider implementing a recognition program where the inputs are crowdsourced or peer-driven. Encourage colleagues to nominate each other throughout the year for their outstanding contributions. This approach fosters a sense of camaraderie and allows employees to appreciate their peers' efforts. Celebrate these recognitions regularly, with more formal awards on a quarterly basis and informal acknowledgments on a monthly basis.

“You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life.” - Zig Ziglar

The Neuroscience of Recognition

Understanding the neuroscience behind recognition can help managers design more effective actions. Our brains are wired to respond positively to rewards, triggering the release of Oxytocin, a hormone associated with empathy and trust. By providing recognition in front of others, such as through a simple act like applause, leaders can promote the release of Oxytocin and create a positive association with work. This approach, as proposed by Paul Zak in his book "Trust Factor," can be a powerful way to boost motivation and engagement.

Taking Action: Improving Your Recognition Efforts

To enhance your recognition practices, consider the following actions:

  • Identify your organization's values and define specific behaviors aligned with these values.

  • Determine actionable ways to observe and measure these behaviors in the workplace.

  • Collaborate with colleagues to generate creative ideas for designing a recognition program that reflects your organization's values and goals.

The right way to recognize people at work is to do it in a way that is authentic, specific, and timely.

  • Authenticity: When you recognize someone, it's important to be sincere and genuine. Don't just give a generic compliment or pat on the back. Take the time to explain why you're recognizing the person and what they did that was so valuable.

  • Specificity: Don't just say "good job." Be specific about what the person did that was so great. This will help them to understand why they're being recognized and feel more appreciated.

  • Timeliness: Don't wait too long to recognize someone. Do it as soon as possible after they've done something worthy of recognition. This will help them to remember the good feeling of being recognized and be more motivated to continue doing great work.

To have impact on your efforts for recognition in your team - make it count! make it:

  • Public: When possible, recognize people in front of others. This will help to amplify the positive feelings of recognition and make the person feel more valued.

  • Unexpected: Don't wait for a special occasion to recognize someone. Do it spontaneously when you see them doing something great. This will make the recognition more meaningful.

  • Personal: Make the recognition personal to the person you're recognizing. This means using their name, talking about their specific contributions, and expressing your appreciation in a way that is meaningful to them.


Meaningful recognition goes beyond superficial rewards. It taps into the inherent human need for appreciation and affirmation. By designing recognition programs that align with core values, emphasize actionable behaviors, and incorporate peer-driven elements, managers can foster a culture of recognition and inspire employees to perform at their best. Remember, recognition is not just about rewards; it is about creating a positive work environment where employees feel valued, motivated, and empowered. Start implementing these strategies today and unlock the full potential of your workforce through meaningful recognition.


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