When I give a talk or lead a training session, I like to ask leaders “What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received for your work?” While the answers can vary, what all the ‘best’ examples have in common is how meaningful each compliment was to the employee. Recognizing a team member with a compliment, a thank you or a “keep up the good work” all serve the same purpose – to convey the message “we value you and your work.” But as many HR pros can attest, leaders can be reluctant to give employees recognition, missing the opportunity to deliver what could have been a positive conversation.
Recognition is a Need Not a Want
It’s been said that “Waiting for validation from others is like waiting for never to arrive.” This might be true if you are expecting your co-workers to notice a new haircut, but when it comes to work performance, staff need feedback to validate they are doing what’s expected.
Some leaders openly chastise a team member’s need for recognition. But isn’t it possible some employees are actually looking for reassurance instead? Acknowledging an employee’s work is more than a ‘thank you’, it tells them if they are meeting, and perhaps exceeding, their leader’s expectations. This feedback is critical for staff to feel invested and feel psychologically safe to give their best.
Three Tips to Consider When Recognizing an Employee
1. Conversation vs. Statement
Recognizing a job well done with an employee as a statement without the expectation of a conversation is like giving a gift and forgetting to wrap it first. It reduces the value of what you’re offering and poor delivery will likely be what’s remembered. Some leaders get nervous and try to rush through the discussion without giving the employee a chance to reply. It’s important to give your team members the opportunity to talk about the recognition they have earned. Ask open-ended questions that encourage self-awareness. New research shows “self-disclosure - revealing personal information to others - produces the highest level of activation in neural regions associated with motivation and reward.” In fact, “sharing information gained through personal experiences can lead to performance advantages by enabling teamwork and shared responsibility for memory.”
2. Personal vs. General
When’s the last time an employee said, “I received a group email today thanking me for my hard work. It really meant a lot to me”? Leaders know it’s more effective to offer individual recognition yet many rush to get it done rather than get it right. Here’s why this matters: personalized feedback creates an emotional connection which will be better remembered – longer, and with more clarity – than a group compliment. It is the equivalent of adding a Post-it note that says “Remember this!”
3. Spontaneous vs. Prescribed
When staff participate in a performance review there’s an expectation they will hear positive and constructive feedback. This can water down the meaning of a compliment, even if it’s well deserved. There is something about an impromptu conversation that makes what is said more memorable. If you really want your talk to engage your employee’s brain leave the office and go outside, sit in a coffee shop or take a stroll. Changes from your usual surroundings will offer more sticking power to the recognition you’re about to give.
The benefits of offering spontaneous recognition can boost an entire organization. Tom Rath, coauthor of How Full Is Your Bucket?, says a “positive leader” “[walks] around the office, [makes] calls, or [writes] e-mails, they are always trying to catch excellence in action. When they spot a job well done, they call attention to what is right. This in turn raises the entire organization's productivity.”
Recognition should not be rationed out like sugar during wartime. Some leaders believe staff should do their job and “not expect a thank you”. In other words, they are paid to do their work so why receive recognition for doing what is expected. This outdated notion is as appropriate as smoking cigarettes in the lunchroom. Employees should not be penalized for wanting their hard work to be acknowledged. This is a natural expectation of a high functioning employee. Cranky people managers are the ones who need to change and lead better conversations with their staff.
Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a conversation coach, trainer and speaker. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based communications training program that helps leaders manage today’s emotionally engaged workforce. Janet is also is also the President of Soilleirich Communications Group, a consultancy that specializes in corporate and employee communications.