What makes recognition meaningful?

As people leaders, managers, and employees, we spend a significant amount of time talking about workplace feedback. Most organ...

February 12, 2021

As people leaders, managers, and employees, we spend a significant amount of time talking about workplace feedback. Most organizations have formal review cycles that ensure individuals receive the information they need to grow and develop in their careers on an annual or bi-annual basis. This feedback is often oriented around an employee’s strengths and areas of opportunity. While these feedback cycles are incredibly essential to build a structure around career development, it’s the micro messages and nudges provided to employees daily that significantly impact performance through reinforcing positive behavior. These frequent reminders signal to employees what actions are valued within the organization and significantly impact overall performance. This is where meaningful recognition, broken down as in-the-moment and deliberate celebrations of positive behavior, takes center stage.

Chart that shows how recognition should be given vs how it is given

More than a “thank you”

Meaningful recognition requires us to be deliberate about naming a specific behavior, outlining the impact of the behavior, and sharing the big picture of why the impact matters. The cycle we fall into is recognizing exceptional work with a “thank you.”

Have you ever put exceptional effort into a thoughtful presentation, dedicated extra time to help a colleague, or went above and beyond to complete a project, after hours, on a Friday night, all to receive a colleague’s well-intended “thank you!” but still felt unappreciated? The same holds true with our frequent notes of “great job!” and “way to go!” The intent to recognize another is there, but we miss out on creating meaningful recognition that holds far more power and generates a longer-term impact for both the individual being recognized and their team. When we recognize the hard work of others with intentionality, we acknowledge its significance and validity.

Saying “thank you” is polite but not enough to create purposeful change in behavior and establish an individual understanding of why the behavior is important. While including a “thank you” is important, it does not provide feedback that people can use. Meaningful recognition should aim to be performance-driven and outline the same level of thoughtful detail as developmental feedback. When managers give the context of what the person did to warrant recognition, they help their employees frame why their behavior matters and ultimately develop the muscle to repeat strong behavior. This enables managers to process what effective behavior looks like on your team and how you can best coach your team to perform similarly in the future.

A framework for meaningful recognition

The best part about meaningful recognition is how we have all we need to put our intent into action once we’re aware of how to give it. Recognize your employees and colleagues in-the-moment, and soon after they do something great. This motivates people to keep doing those actions or tasks.

Consider the questions below as a framework for giving meaningful recognition:

  • What is the specific situation and behavior that you want to recognize?
  • What was the impact of the particular action to your team, shared goals, or business objectives?
  • What is the bigger picture and why is it important?
  • How does the specific behavior align with your company’s core values?

We can start with our initial intent to share a “thank you” or “great job” and expand our thoughts to make our recognition more meaningful. Thank you for what? What actions made this a great job?

“Thank you for working late last Friday. I understand the number of competing demands our team faced, and you stepped up to deliver the project before the weekend. The extra time you took to update our systems on Friday will enable us to smoothly onboard four new hires on Monday and set them up for a successful first week. You embodied our value of leading with excellence.”

“Great job on the sales pitch on Tuesday. It was clear that you spent much time crafting your narrative and story. Your delivery was engaging and articulate, enabling you to connect with our clients, which ultimately helped us close the deal. Way to live out or value to think big and take intelligent risks.”

When we are pulled in multiple directions, it’s easy to think we’re the best version of ourselves by remembering to recognize others with our gratitude. If we want to lead from the front and reinforce habits that stick, let’s do better. Regular positive reinforcement that outlines why employees are being recognized reminds them of the type of behavior that is valued by the company and drives business objectives. This encourages the behaviors that cause the most significant impact on the organization. When meaningful recognition is shared publicly, it spreads awareness across the company about the most impactful contributions.

Providing meaningful recognition requires intentionality. Platforms like Assembly facilitate this type of meaningful recognition. Assembly is an employee engagement platform that empowers individuals with a convenient tool to create a culture of meaningful recognition. Teammates can recognize each other on the platform with personalized notes about the specific behavior, its impact, why it is important, and the bigger picture. Employees can celebrate one another, earn badges, redeem culture awards, and collecting points to be redeemed or donated. With Assembly, employees can learn from others by publicly seeing the behaviors recognized throughout the organization and what it means to live out the organization’s core values.

About the Author: Marissa Morrison – She is the former Head of People at Factual, Inc. before it was acquired by Foursquare where she is now Senior Director, Human Resources. Marissa also serves as Assembly's advisor where she provides guidance on narrative, product development, and much more!