How to Meaningfully Recognize and Celebrate Employees

Marianne Hayes
June 20, 2019

With the holidays fast approaching, employee recognition is top of mind. Holiday parties, end-of-year bonuses, annual raises—we're all looking for ways to make employees feel valued and appreciated.

This sentiment goes a long way in employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. One 2013 Cicero Group report found that employees who feel well recognized are more driven and determined, have better work relationships, and feel more strongly bonded with their company. They also happen to be more innovative and efficient.

The kicker? Employees reported that recognition is more effective at increasing performance and engagement than an additional 5-percent bonus. When it comes to employee happiness and retention, a little recognition indeed goes a long way.

"With millennials, the largest generation in the workplace now, the research indicates they expect recognition on a daily basis." says Bob Nelson, Ph.D., an employee recognition and engagement expert, and bestselling author of 1501 Ways to Reward Employees.

"What they really expect is a steady stream of feedback about how they're doing, what's working, and what's not so they can get better because we're in fast-moving times, and the only way to make sure you're on the mark is to get it validated."

While the end of the year is a great time to dole out employee recognition, Dr. Nelson suggests keeping up with it all year round. When your praise is genuine and sincere, it's impossible to overdo it. Looking for ways to recognize, motivate and engage your team in ways that are actually meaningful? Here are a few expert-backed tips to get the ball rolling.

Know the right way to praise

The most meaningful type of praise, according to Dr. Nelson, is employee recognition that's sincere, specific and performance-oriented—recognizing initiatives that really made a difference in the company's success. This means going beyond personal attributes and really getting to the meat of why you value this employee. Instead of saying something like, "You're such a sweet person!" think more in terms of calling out something amazing they did that really embodied your company values.

"You always take initiative and think outside the box, which is why client XYZ, and our team, love working with you." A key ingredient in making the employee recognition more meaningful, says Dr. Nelson, is to add specific personal praise and thanks.

"Saying everyone's doing a good job doesn't ring true," he adds. "There are probably people who aren't doing a good job, and if you're lumping the people who are with the people who are barely showing up for work, you're going to demotivate everybody, so it's got to be sincere." Sincerity is clear when the praise is specific. For example, “You did a great job, and here's my evidence of it (i.e. compliments from a client, something positive another team member had to say, etc.).”


Craft handwritten notes

"If you ask anyone to think of a time they felt appreciated and excited at work, no one mentions the number on their paycheck," says Dr. Nelson. "It's always something that a person they hold in high esteem did to call out something they did a good job at; something that was done in a thoughtful, sincere, personal way."

A simple way to get the job done is to sit down and craft handwritten notes to each person on your team. Get the creative juices flowing by thinking of specific successes they had and moments that made you proud. Dr. Nelson says this type of praise is special because they can bring it home to their family, hang it up in their workspace, and be reminded again and again that the work they do matters.

Come up with meaningful company awards

The holidays make a great time to publicly recognize stellar performance. Dr. Nelson worked with one manager who created unique award certificates for his team—things like The person who always follows through orThe person who's always there when you need them. During the awards ceremony, this particular manager would read each certificate aloud, then ask his team to guess the winner.

"They always got it right, of course, but the point is that it made it fun, and validating too," says Dr. Nelson. 

Host "praise barrages"

Ever heard of a "praise barrage?" It's pretty much what the name implies. During your next staff meeting, go around the room and have everyone share one brief thing they like about working with a particular employee. Then choose another employee and do it again.

"It's 100 percent positive comments, and it doesn't take that long," says Dr. Nelson. "It's very affirming."

You could also do praise barrages with index cards. Have each employee jot down a note of gratitude to another team member. The great thing about index cards is that they're tactile. Employees can hold them in their hands and read that note of thanks again and again.

"And whatever it is you're acknowledged for, you're going to be even better at next time because you know someone values it," adds Dr. Nelson. The truth is that there are one million and one simple ways to make your team feel validated. No matter what, the most important thing is to offer up praise often and in a manner that feels sincere and unique to each employee.

"If you praise someone to their face, that means something different than if you write them a note that they can then take home and share with their family. And it means something different if you leave them a voice mail that they can listen to multiple times," says Dr. Nelson. "You've got to be firing on all those cylinders to do a good job of recognizing people."

Photography by Mel Walbridge

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