I once coached a leader who was struggling to get the best out of his team. Most of his staff were woefully disengaged and morale was low. He, like a lot of managers, was constantly in problem-solving mode and stressed about achieving aggressive goals. The fixation on what was going wrong consistently spilled over into interactions with his team.
I learned this manager started his team meetings first thing Monday mornings with a laundry list of problems to be addressed in the week ahead. I suggested the manager try kicking off the meeting instead by recognizing someone who did exceptional work the week before or calling out a positive outcome the team had generated before getting into the meat of the agenda. This tweak was transformative. The team’s engagement score soared—all from giving appreciation where appreciation was due.
The power of positive reinforcement is something a lot of leaders haven’t tapped into. A 2016 study found that 82% of U.S. employees want more recognition from supervisors. What’s more, almost half said if they were recognized more often, they would put more effort into their work.
There’s an upcoming, organic opportunity to recognize employees for their work, as Employee Appreciation Day 2021 is March 5, just six days shy of the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. If there was ever a time to emphatically thank the employees who have consistently shown up ready to tackle new challenges while continuing to do great work, it would be now. But for employees to feel that they are genuinely valued, people leaders must weave the spirit of Employee Appreciation Day—authentically and publicly recognizing employees for their contributions—into a year-round effort with supporting infrastructure.
Creating structure around recognition does several things. It perpetuates a culture of high performance, motivates people to do great work, and creates clarity for employees around what it looks like to live out the organization’s values. As the leader I coached learned, recognition also has a notable impact on employee engagement. It enhances an employee’s intellectual and emotional connection with an employer, demonstrated by motivation and commitment to positively impact the company vision and goals.
It doesn’t happen by accident, though. There are three steps to build infrastructure around recognition that supports the organization’s goals, activates core values, and improves employee engagement.
The most important lever for recognition is the manager. There are two key moments where a manager can have the most impact on whether or not employees feel appreciated: weekly team meetings and one on ones.
During team meetings, it takes discipline to intentionally call out great work each week, but it’s hard to overstate the benefits of taking a few minutes to highlight those specific behaviors and actions. For one, it shows the team that you care enough to notice when they’re doing a good job. It’s also motivating—and not just for the person who received praise. Showcasing great work creates momentum for more great work. Finally, it improves the odds that, when the time comes to address concerns, the team will be receptive and eager to solve problems.
One-on-one meetings also offer an opportunity to show recognition. Here, it’s important for managers to keep their own stress out of the meeting and allow the employee to drive the agenda. The discussion in one on ones tends to be more focused on the individual rather than the team as a whole, so managers should think about recognition in the context of the employee’s goals and growth. Taking the time to highlight behaviors that are propelling the employee forward toward achieving those goals, as well as specific feedback, reinforces that they’re headed in the right direction.
Lean on core values
An organization’s core values are pointless if the only purpose they serve is to decorate a wall. Core values should be at the center of an employee’s lived experience, and baking them into a recognition structure ensures that they are a living part of the culture.
At my company, we have six core values that serve as the foundation for our awards cycle. Each week, an employee can nominate a peer who is living out one of those core values, which we then shout out during our biweekly all-team meeting. From there, those weekly nominations go to inform one winner each quarter. Once those quarterly winners are announced, two things happen: they are put in the running for the annual Legend Award, and given an opportunity to pay it forward and name the person who has been most instrumental to their success. Rather than leadership choosing the annual legend, a selection committee comprised of people who have won the quarterly award in the past evaluate and choose who will be named the Legend for that year.
Core values are abstract by their very nature. But when you showcase the people who are living them out in a tangible way, it creates a template that others in the organization can use to make the core values their own.
Get everyone rowing in the same direction
Along with verbal recognition and company awards, offering rewards plays a role in showing appreciation as well. One way to go about rewarding employees is choosing three to five metrics that are central to the success of the organization and creating rewards for the entire company based on the achievement of those metrics. This not only gets everyone thinking like an owner in how they can most contribute to the organization’s success but also contributes to the mentality of “winning as one” in unlocking those rewards.
Along with regular recognition infrastructure at the team and company levels, consider implementing a roadmap that correlates rewards with achieving company goals. For example, hitting a revenue target could unlock extra paid time off, or a one-time, all-company bonus.
To improve morale for a day, celebrate Employee Appreciation Day on March 5. To boost employee engagement and performance long-term, use Employee Appreciation Day as a foundation for recognition infrastructure that highlights and celebrates employees year-round.