happy woman with arms in the air being sprinkled with confetti
PHOTO: Clay Banks

Does this sound familiar? You’ve invested a lot of time on a project, and yet you don’t feel recognized. Despite repeatedly putting in the effort, being a team player, delivering quality work, something’s missing. You feel as if you haven't received any sort of thanks or praise for your efforts. 

Lack of recognition can be a real demotivator, and is a factor in employees becoming disengaged. Yet many companies still fail to capitalize on recognition outside of formal processes. One of the reasons for this is because companies struggle to define recognition beyond monetary rewards, even though studies have shown that money isn’t always top of people’s lists in terms of benefits.

Recognition is not always as simple as a "thanks" or a pat on the back, but it also doesn’t have to be complicated or extremely costly. Put simply: it’s ensuring people feel their contribution and presence are valued.

Related Article: Employee Engagement Is Not the End Game

Why You Should Focus on Recognition

While some may question whether recognition is necessary, the fact is, lack of recognition has negative effects. If employees don’t receive regular recognition, chances are they will feel underappreciated — perhaps even used — and eventually leave the company. If they stay but remain disengaged, their productivity lowers and they don’t invest as much effort into their work, ultimately affecting the bottom line. For example, they may start to show up later and leave earlier from work.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely did a number of studies on the subject and found how demotivating it was for people to see their work ignored. In a TED talk, he shared an anecdote about a student of his who had spent hours on a presentation, only to find out the day before it was to be used that the event was cancelled and no one would see it. After having invested so much effort, the news made the student quite depressed. Ariely went on to conduct experiments that supported this argument: monetary rewards were less important than recognition of one’s efforts.

Recognition also contributes to your company culture. Companies often spend a lot of time investing in perks for employees like onsite facilities, free lunches and more, while overlooking recognition programs. However, they are an easy way of living your values throughout the organization, creating loyalty amongst employees.

As Stephanie Walzak, Total Rewards consultant said, “Recognition is another vehicle for supporting your culture. It has the highest opportunity for ROI. It can be personal, impactful and meaningful.”

Related Article: How to Beat the Employee Engagement Slump

How to Do Recognition More Consistently

To start, it’s important to develop recognition outside of formal processes. Don’t wait for the annual performance review (if you’re still doing it annually) to come around before you give people positive feedback about their work. Recognition needs to be timely, otherwise it doesn’t seem genuine.

There are other reasons to give people regular feedback on their work, including helping them know where they stand and giving them signals on what’s going well (or what could be improved). When it comes to positive feedback, in addition to the "feel good effect," it helps employees identify their strengths and know where to focus their efforts, making them want to do more of a good thing.

As demonstrated by Gallup, focusing on people’s strengths can help them develop and increase their engagement at work by anywhere from 9% to 15%. When people get more regular recognition for their work, chances are they will be more committed to their jobs. It’s a win-win all around.

Companies often hold back on recognition outside of formal processes because they’re worried about its costs or don’t know how to incorporate it outside of payroll — but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. There’s no need to throw a huge party at the end of each project, or buy people lavish gifts. If the gifts aren’t personal, they might not even be remembered. In fact, recognition allows you to get creative with your rewards.

The most important thing is remembering to praise someone for a job well done. Here are 10 simple ways you can do that without breaking the bank:

  • Real-time, peer to peer feedback. Give people the ability to send praise to their colleagues in the moment, after a job well done. If you have a performance management platform that enables this, even better. If not, you can also keep it simple with a box in which people can drop praise notes, encourage people to send each other short emails, or even sending Kudos on LinkedIn. People won't have to wait to hear it from their managers and can get positive reinforcement at any time. Peer to peer recognition is just as impactful, and breaks the “predictable” cycle of only ever receiving feedback from managers or other superiors.
  • A handwritten note or personal email. This can be much more powerful than an expensive gift. A well thought out personal note to thank someone for their work, emphasizing what in particular you appreciated about their contribution is all it takes.
  • A personalized gift. Again it doesn’t have to be expensive, the most important thing is that it’s meaningful for the personal receiving it. For example, it could be a voucher for the café they stop at on their way to work, or movie tickets. The personal element makes it much more meaningful and memorable for the person who receives the gift.
  • Give them a shout-out. We're not talking “employee of the week,” which can feel a little impersonal after a while. Ideas for public praise include: writing a post about them on social media, an article on the intranet, or calling out their good work during a team meeting. All simple yet effective ways of putting someone in the spotlight for their good work.
  • Let them work from home for a day. If your company doesn’t have flexible working hours or a remote policy in place, giving someone the ability to work from home for a day is a great way to thank them for their efforts, while affording them some extra flexibility.
  • Take them out for lunch. It’s a nice personal touch if a manager can treat their employee to a nice lunch as a way of thanking them for their efforts in a recent project, going above and beyond, or helping a colleague in need. Keeping one on one lunches a rarity makes them more special and allows for relationship building in the process.
  • Celebrate victories as a team. This is also often overlooked, with a lot of post-mortems devoted to understanding what went wrong. But celebrating success, whether big or small, does a lot for team morale. Did a customer just share positive feedback about the work you did for them? Share the email within the team, high five each other, ring a gong, or create a board with all positive feedback you’ve ever received. Just make sure you’re taking time to recognize the positives.
  • Let them take on a new assignment with more responsibilities. While this may sound like more work, it’s actually a sign of trust. When you hand them the new assignment, mention why you think this is the right opportunity for them and what they’ve done in the past to show they are ready for it.
  • Give them an opportunity to attend an exciting industry conference or talk. Not only do they get a day off, but they get to spend it learning and networking. This is a great way to show you’re happy with a job well done, while investing in your employees’ professional development. By supporting professional development you’re also showing that you want them to stay on board and grow as an employee within the company.
  • Get to know your employees. While this may seem very basic, it’s actually the best way to be able to provide people with recognition that will have an impact. Meredith Haberfeld, CEO of ThinkHuman once spoke of a startup she worked for that made all employees fill out a bucket list during onboarding from “grandiose to minute,” that they could refer to when necessary.

Remember, as with all feedback make sure it’s specific. In other words, don't just say “good job.” Take the time to tell the person exactly what you appreciated about their work. For example: “Thank you for taking time to walk Sally through our content calendar and give her background information. She was able to pick up quickly and deliver new articles as a result.”

Related Article: With Employee Engagement, Don't Forget the Humans

Create a Recognition Habit

Recognition doesn’t have to be a large-scale program tied to compensation and benefits. As Meredith Haberfeld said, "Its ROI is obvious, because it costs almost nothing and the return can be so big." It’s a key pillar of your company culture, and an integral part of the employee experience.

Spend some time thinking of fun and easy ways you can revive or enhance your current recognition program to help employees feel more valued. You could even involve them in the process and ask them for their ideas — you might be surprised with what they come up with.

Don’t save your praise for the annual review, make sure you’re spreading it evenly across the year.