You place a lot of emphasis on keeping your employees happy — well, at least you like to think that you do. You offer plenty of paid vacation time and emphasize adequate work-life balance. You encourage team members to voice their opinions and share ideas. You even keep the office kitchen stocked with snacks. But, are you missing something? If you don’t have an effective way to adequately recognize and reward your team members for their hard work, then the answer is yes — you’re missing a pretty big something. Recognition is crucial to ensure that your employees are happy and engaged with their work. In fact, according to an OfficeTeam survey, 66% of workers indicated that they’d leave their jobs if they didn’t feel appreciated. Another study indicates that companies with recognition programs that are highly effective at enabling employee engagement had 31% lower voluntary turnover than organizations with ineffective recognition programs. But, despite the fact that employees obviously crave a hearty pat on the back every now and then, companies are still pretty stingy. A whopping 63% of employees feel they don’t get enough praise.

The Need for Recognition

“Showing appreciation for workers’ efforts sounds basic, but it’s a fundamental element of motivation,” explains Brandi Britton, District President of OfficeTeam. “Employees desire more than just a paycheck,” adds Todd Horton, Founder and CEO of KangoGift. “Many employees want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and that their contributions make a difference. Employees who feel appreciated work harder and are more committed to the organization.” One study even cites that recognition matters more to employees than money or gifts. And one quick look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs confirms that recognition is up there alongside achievement, mastery, and respect.  Maslow's hierarchy of Needs Put simply, recognition is important to us all. After all, no one wants to work hard for a company without ever feeling appreciated for their efforts. In addition to making employees feel valued, improved retention is another big benefit to adequate employee recognition. “As the economy continues to improve, workers have more job options and may leave their employers for new opportunities if they don’t feel valued,” shares Britton. “Retention is a key concern for companies right now.”

Roadblocks to Recognition

And yet, despite the numerous benefits of recognizing and rewarding employees, many employers still miss the mark. “80% of people think that they are better leaders than they actually are,” says Horton. “This means that if they share a few positive feedback moments, they think they are doing their job. However, employees crave more.” Furthermore, a different OfficeTeam survey revealed that 89% of senior managers say that their organization is good at recognizing workers. However, 30% of employees give their firms low marks when it comes to showing appreciation. There are logistics — like lack of funds or time — that can make regular recognition difficult. “Many leaders simply struggle to set aside the time and energy it takes to recognize employees,” says Nick Sanchez, Chief People Officer at Namely. Additionally, many fail to see the value in the practice. “The biggest roadblock is not seeing recognition as an investment,” says Stephen Friedman, a Professor of Organization Studies at The Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. “Instead, we see it as some sort of cost. It takes time and energy, and sometimes because we are too busy, stressed, or narrow-minded, we don’t look at the benefits we can get.”

How to Make Your Team Members Feel Valued

1. Do it Frequently

If you think that recognizing employees just once during the annual review is a sufficient way to do things, you need to think again. Be prepared to celebrate the journey with your employees, and not just the destination. And this means you need to offer recognition on a frequent basis, including when a project is in process, and not just at the end. Another thing you need to consider? Appropriate timing. “Timing is everything,” says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., Chief Behavioral Scientist at ChipRewards Inc. “Praise delivered four to six weeks after the behavior has little potency. Praise should be delivered ideally as close in time as is possible to the desired behavior occurring.” TIP: Make praise a fun part of your company culture. Whether you want to encourage team members to ring the office gong when they’ve accomplished something major (a particularly popular tactic for sales teams!) or you want to encourage everybody to send their best and funniest GIF whenever you give kudos in your company chat, find fun ways to recognize your employees’ achievements. This sort of peer-to-peer recognition can be powerful (it’s 35.7% more likely to have a positive impact on financial results than manager-only recognition!), and it won’t feel like a burden to you.

2. Tie Praise to Specific Behaviors

Think about this: praise is a form of feedback. And, the very best kind of feedback is specific. In fact, a study of sixth graders drove this point home. When these students were provided specific feedback in the form of written comments, it was noted that they attained significantly higher achievements than when they were given non-specific numeric scores. Your employees aren’t middle schoolers, but this point still holds some water. That general, “You’re doing a great job!” compliment you’re passing around to employees isn’t as effective or impactful as you may think. “Generic praise for a host of jobs well done won’t cause harm, but it will not influence behavior,” Klapow says. “Make the praise specific to a behavior or set of behaviors so the association is obvious.” Plus, if you remember to offer feedback for specific actions and accomplishments, you'll naturally do it more frequently. Employee recognition tip: “Make the praise specific to a behavior or set of behaviors so the association is obvious.”

3. Understand Your Employees

Each of your employees has different strengths, communication styles, needs, and preferences. So, it’s important to keep in mind that they might not all prefer the same type of recognition. “Not everyone loves public praise, for example, so it’s important to respect their individuality,” says Sanchez. You can also implement different types of recognition for various accomplishments. “On-the-spot programs help celebrate the smaller wins, while milestone programs celebrate years of service,” says Horton. “By thinking about different types of recognition, a manager is ensuring one method will resonate with employees.” This also helps ensure that the form of recognition fits the degree of achievement. “If you give someone something small for a significant milestone, it can be a slap to the face,” adds Britton. TIP: Sanchez recommends sending out a survey to your employees: “If you’re managing a lot of direct reports, surveys can be a useful tool for learning everyone’s preferred feedback channel.” Even just a few short questions will allow you to quickly glean the best way to praise your employees, without making them uncomfortable or uneasy.

4. Make it Personal

“A Harvard study that spans 75 years concludes individual happiness can be traced to meaningful relationships,” says Horton. “Leaders who embrace recognition form bonds with colleagues, strengthen trust, and make the workplace a better environment to operate in.” “The reinforcing properties of praise come from the social connection,” Klapow shares, “A form letter has far less power than a handwritten letter. A personal, verbal praise has far more power than an email. A personal praise that is authentic is the most powerful.” Personalized recognition also means that you don’t want to fall into the trap of making things too automated. “If it is overly automated, like a praise email that comes out for every good behavior, then the praise itself will lose its reinforcing properties,” Klapow adds. Don’t think you have the time to pull this off? If the CEO of Belfor can manage to send personal birthday cards to each of his 7,000 employees, you can likely make the time to individually recognize your team members’ achievements when they deserve it. Want to know more about the importance of personal recognition? Watch Arnold Blits’ TEDx Talk on why this matters so greatly:

5. Set a Plan

While praise should be one of your priorities as a leader, there’s no denying that it can be hard to scale. “Personal, individual, social praise that occurs face to face, which can be extremely powerful, is not a scalable solution. Leaders cannot functionally spend enough time reinforcing all the good behaviors directly or the work of the organization would never get done,” Klapow says. This is why establishing praise structures is important. “Recognize that praise should happen across the organization, including but not limited to, top leadership. This helps in two ways: First, it allows for greater scalability of the praise itself. And secondly, it shows employees that leaders at all levels care about the behavior,” says Klapow. Building in praise as a core piece of your culture and your leadership approach will make the process of recognizing employees more predictable — ensuring it actually gets done. TIP: Want an easy way to get started? Consider beginning each team meeting with about five minutes dedicated to recognition. Since those occur on a regular basis, you’ll have built-in time to publicly applaud team members for their efforts and achievements. “If you meet once a week or once a day, have it be the first item to discuss,” explains George Rathman, CEO of The Alternative Board Atlanta Central and Rathman Consulting and Coaching Inc. “It’s amazing how two to three minutes of reward time in a daily 10-minute huddle can lead to more engagement and productivity.”

Wrapping Up

Despite the fact that leaders are aware that their employees crave recognition, many of them fail to provide adequate praise for team members' accomplishments. When your plate is full, it can be tough to make sufficient time to give employees the pats on the back they deserve. However, if you want lower turnover and a more engaged workforce, you have no choice but to make recognition a priority. To recap, effective praise of employees is:
  • Frequent
  • Tied to specific behaviors
  • Highly personal
Understanding your employees and setting up predictable praise structures will help you check those boxes and deliver praise that makes your entire team feel appreciated — and, thus, keeps them happy.

Author Bio: Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.
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