Motivating Employees Through Recognition

Ever wonder how you can motivate your employees to be more engaged with their jobs – to be enthusiastic and go that extra mile for your company? Bonuses?  Raises? Threats?  Detailed performance evaluations? Employee -of -the -Month contests?


More than 70 years of scientific research, much of it spearheaded by the Gallup organization, has demonstrated that the key to promoting employee engagement is RECOGNITION. Personal recognition by their manager or immediate supervisor for a job well done has been shown, time and time again, to be more highly valued by employees than any other factor, including compensation.

More than 88% of employees view being recognized by their manager for good work as extremely important or very important. Employees in a company that focuses on recognition of this kind are 5 times more likely to feel valued, 7 times more likely to remain at the company and 11 times more likely to feel committed to their jobs and the company’s mission. In contrast, in several studies insufficient praise and recognition was ranked as a primary reason for leaving a company.

Less than 30% of employees said that compensation would motivate them to stay.  This might be music to many a manager’s ears, since recognition is easier on the budget than increases in monetary compensation.  But an effective employee recognition program is not so easy to implement and sustain.  It requires educating managers about the true triggers of employee motivation and it requires consistent application across the board.  To be effective, the recognition must be:

  • Sincere
  • Personal
  • Immediate
  • Specific
  • Appropriate

Gratuitous or generic praise has little effect and is soon discounted.  It must be tied to a specific act so the employee knows what behavior is being rewarded there and then.  And the magnitude of the praise must be proportional to the importance of the behavior.  As Dr. Bob Nelson, the guru of employee recognition puts it, the praise should be of the form: “I saw what you did.”  “I appreciate it.” It’s important.”  “It makes me feel…”  Notice the recurrence of “I” in these statements.  It emphasizes the personal recognition by the supervisor, which is foundationally important to the employee.  As Nelson puts it, “recognition signifies that someone notices and someone cares.”

It strikes me that the principles of recognition can be taken a giant step forward by applying them to character. Instead of praising a specific act and explaining its importance, we can recognize a character trait or virtue from which it emanates.  For example, if I see my receptionist calm an angry and distressed patient, under traditional recognition theory I might say, “Alice, I saw you handle Mrs. Smith, who was obviously upset. You did a great job calming her down. That’s important because we don’t want our patients to be angry an upset with us.”

But targeting character recognition, I might say more. I might add, “Alice, in handling Mrs. Smith you displayed great compassion and patience, and those are two traits I value and respect.” Now I have not only said something positive about what Alice did but I also said something about who she is.  Chances are Alice sees herself as a compassionate and patient person—it is part of her identity– and I have just told her I see her that way too.  That is a more powerful and lasting affirmation, likely to elicit similar behavior in the future.  This is a modern day version of Aristotle’s idea of cultivating a virtuous disposition.” Irv Seldin, CEO at Visiting Angels

There are many details and nuances to cultivating a culture of employee recognition. For further resources see Clifton, First Break All the Rules, and and

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