People stay in jobs and leave for new ones for all kinds of reasons: pay, growth opportunities, work culture, you name it. But one thing that tends to get regularly undervalued when it comes to retention is simple yet meaningful: recognition.
Everyone needs to feel appreciated, whether at work or in other areas of their lives. But it's about more than just a feeling. Effective recognition gives employees a sense of ownership and belonging, increases loyalty and morale, and builds a supportive work environment. In other words, it's about keeping your team members motivated to do work they care about. When their motivation flags, they're likelier to start looking around for more inspiring opportunities.
So to achieve these results, recognition needs to be given at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. If not, recognition will not only fail to achieve these goals, but it might also have the opposite effect of damaging the employer-employee relationship and pushing top talent out the door.
Here are seven habits of team leaders who create and carry out recognition efforts that actually work.
Timing is crucial when recognizing individuals or teams for going beyond their regular duties. Simply put, don't delay. It's important to be recognized as soon as possible after an achievement. That's when excitement and expectations are highest. If the moment lapses, the opportunity to tap into the energy generated after a significant event will be lost, and the impact of your recognition will be reduced or lost altogether.
While this may seem obvious, recognition can be done for reasons that might be seen as different than actually honoring the person or persons receiving it. I've witnessed employees being lauded by management only when the people their managers report to were present. In those cases, the silent assumption of those being recognized was that it was done to make management look good in the eyes of their superiors, rather than as a sincere appreciation for their work. This can breed cynicism, decrease motivation, and lower respect for the people doling out the kudos.
Often, recognition is given because it's expected. If you have a monthly recognition program, for instance, chances are you'll be singling people out for accolades simply because you've got a quota to fill on a certain date. Instead, the most effective managers highlight their employees' achievements for clear, specific instances of going beyond the call of duty.
Set events like employee recognition day undermine the true value of recognition; there's the expectation that everyone will ultimately get recognized regardless of what they have or haven’t done. That's a lazy way out for managers to fulfill their obligation to call out extraordinary work. Giving meaningful recognition requires taking the time and effort to get to know your staff, their work, and the areas in which they truly excel.
One-size-fits-all is probably the worst way to give recognition. Make it as personal and suited to the individual as possible. One of the benefits of knowing staff well is understanding how they might like to be recognized when the time comes.
Recognizing people in front of their colleagues can be powerful—but only if this is their preference. For some people, being acknowledged privately is better. If you're unsure, take the time to find out by talking to those closest to them—or even asking people at the time they're hired, "How do you like to be recognized?"
Ultimately, employees appreciate it when their manager makes the effort to think thoughtfully about what they have to say. Beyond the recognition gesture itself, this creates emotional connections. Instead of a standardized card or gift, think about what the recipient would appreciate.
Staff should always know how their work contributes to the overall goals of the organization. If the person being recognized understands how they've helped advance those larger objectives, their recognition will feel more meaningful. An employee who's authentically praised for helping to push their team forward will be more motivated to keep putting in their best effort in the future.
Nothing destroys or devalues recognition more than throwing in a condition or mentioning how they could've done even better. The time and place to offer constructive feedback is during staff evaluations or one-on-one meetings. But when great managers praise their team members for a job well done, they're careful to let those people shine, knowing that any distractions will rob them of their chance to do so.