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Three tips for creating meaningful recognition

Updated: May 4, 2023

Over the years, companies have come to understand the importance and power of employee recognition – to our people and to our companies.

Let’s start with a piece of data from a study that asked employees what matters most to them, and what is the most important thing your manager or company currently does that would cause you to produce great work. The clear winner was appreciation, with 37% of respondents saying “recognize me,” which was higher than getting more pay (7%), getting more training (6%) or getting a promotion (4%), showing how appreciation matters the most to them.

The study also shows that appreciation and recognition matter to our companies, for when answering the question of what matters most to them, respondents also said that by getting more recognition, they’d produce great work.

However, the only way a company will achieve these results is when they get recognition “right.” A critical factor in doing this is by making recognition meaningful – delivering meaning in three ways – in what you recognize, what you say, and what you do. By doing this, you show the person that you have seen, value and appreciate their specific contributions.

1. Create meaning in what you recognize

As we all know, what gets recognized gets repeated, as it sends messages to our people that these actions and behaviours are the ones that the company considers important. And for this reason, we need to recognize not just any actions and behaviors, but the “right” ones, ones that will help your business achieve your goals and objectives. Think of it like a dart board, with the bullseye in the middle representing what you’re asking your employees to “aim” for in what they do.

The most effective way to create meaning in what you recognize is by recognizing your people against your company values. As I talk about in my book ‘Bringing Your Values Out to Play,’ this does 3 things:

  1. It creates focus – showing your employees what they need to aim for.

  2. You signal that values are important – putting them front and centre, and not hidden away in an employee handbook or on a poster hanging in the office.

  3. You create habits by recognising against them.

Recognizing your people against your company values is like a live classroom experience, teaching and demonstrating what your values mean and how they look in real-time, and in the moment.

2. Create meaning with recognition messages

Another key element of making recognition meaningful is in what I call the "say," which are your recognition messages. Saying ‘thanks for your help,’ although very nice, does little to make the person feel recognized since there’s likely little to no understanding of what they’ve done to merit that recognition. And going back to the previous point, this vague and meaningless message does little to help the person know what they did right, and thus what they should continue doing.

If instead, the message says, ‘Thanks for coming in early to prepare and distribute materials to the team to help them understand how the new office scheduling system will work,’ the person knows specifically what they’ve done, and how they’ve helped you and others. Since this doesn’t always come naturally to people, whenever I run a recognition training session with managers and employees, I share this simple 3-step process that comes from Gregg Lederman’s book titled ‘Crave’:

  • Step 1: Tell the Action: Specifically describe what the person did, their behaviour or action, that is worthy of being recognized.

  • Step 2: Connect to a Value: Next, link the behaviour or action to your company values or specific company objectives, as explained in the previous tip.

  • Step 3: Share the Impact: Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to show the benefit and impact of the behaviour or action that you are recognizing. As Lederman says, “By sharing the impact, you are providing another healthy dose of respect and purpose!”

By creating meaningful recognition messages, you multiply the impact of the appreciation, taking it to an entirely new level.

3. Create meaning with recognition rewards

Just as important as the "say" is the "do," creating meaning by what you do to recognize your people through your recognition rewards. Sometimes it’s non-financial, with the messages being the reward, and other times it’s financial, with some token being given to recognize your people for their achievements and contributions.

When it comes to selecting the most meaningful reward it’s important to keep these 2 things in mind:

  1. Consider the connection between the reward and the contribution, making sure that they’re aligned (e.g. if it is a small contribution the reward should be small, if it was a larger contribution, the reward should be larger).

  2. Consider differences in your workforce when determining rewards to meet their diverse set of needs (e.g. how do they like to be recognised, what will make them genuinely feel appreciated?).

To tick the box for both of these points, more companies are rewarding employees with points to spend through their recognition platform. By doing this, you can award the right amount based on the contribution made, and give the employee the choice as to which reward they’d like.

One of my favourite stories shared with me by an employee at a former company was when he said he saved up his points to buy a pair of shoes. And each time he wore them, he thought of all of the people that had recognized him, making the appreciation feeling happen over and over again!

Another way to create meaningful rewards is to do something unique to your business and/or culture. Here are 8 examples from my book titled ‘Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition’:

  • At Charles Tyrwhitt, a British retailer, they have a Tick from Nick Award which is given to employees doing work relating to the CSR agenda as well as charitable work. Winners receive a special gift related to their work such as a free ticket to The Prince’s Trust award finals for charity-related work.

  • At Heineken, one of the world’s largest brewers, they have an Inspiring People Awards (IPA Award which is given to employees who go above and beyond. For the awards they offer choice, from money to spend on their recognition platform, to a day off work, or a dinner at one of their pubs.

  • At HomeServe, one of the U.K.’s leading home assistance providers, they have a quarterly Shining Star Award which is given to employees for going above and beyond when it comes to the customer, environment, colleagues or the business. Winners receive a cash award as well as a “money can’t buy” experience such as a coaching from a member of the executive team, the ability to attend a meeting with an executive, or even a ride to work in a limousine or the Chief Exec’s helicopter.

  • At InterGlobe Aviation Limited (IndiGo), India’s largest passenger airline, they have an Employee of the Quarter Award that is given to employees who rise to the occasion and go beyond the call of duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of IndiGo and its customers. Winners receive a badge for their lanyard as well as points to be spent on their recognition platform. In addition, a photograph of them is displayed on one of their aircrafts, with their family being invited for the unveiling, creating a great moment of pride for the employee, their family and their colleagues.

  • At NAHL Group plc (NAHL), the parent company of National Accident Law, they have an annual award where employees can nominate one another for awards such as values champions, employee’s choice award, team of year, manager of the year, etc. Team and manager of the year winners receive a night out together as a team, and the employee’s choice winner receives a weekend away. Values champion winners receive money to spend on their own development, along with the responsibility of representing their division in their annual employee survey by presenting it to their team and then gathering feedback on specific actions.

  • At NextLevel Internet (NextLevel), a U.S. cloud-based voice, internet and unified communication service provider, they have their Night on the Town Awards that are given for going above and beyond. Winners receive a crisp $100 bill that they can use to go out on the town and celebrate with their family and friends. This is the only financial award they give, and when asked they explained that it’s not really about the money, as it’s about the experience of a celebratory moment.

  • At Zappos, a U.S. retailer, they have their monthly GOAT Awards that are given to members of their customer loyalty team who have gone above and beyond. Winners receive money to spend on their recognition platform as well as a life-size toy goat.

  • At Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, they have a quarterly executive nominated award to recognise individuals and teams outside of their own group based on going above and beyond their Zoom abilities. Winners receive a meal for themselves and their families as they believe that the family should be a part of the recognition as they’ve contributed to the achievement.

As you design and re-design your recognition programmes, keep in mind this concept and goal of being meaningful. Making them meaningful in what you recognize, what you and your people ‘say’ in their recognition messages, and what you ‘do’ through your recognition rewards. By achieving this, you can embrace and leverage the power of recognition, reaping all of the benefits that they can and do deliver. All the best!


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