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How to make employee recognition feel unique, sincere

Keeping great employees engaged is pivotal in an era of job hopping; Marc Cugnon shares his advice for helping them feel sincerely valued.

5 min read


Mid adult businesswoman handshake with a coworker on a business meeting at office for article on employee value

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In the wake of a 2023 that was challenging for thousands of workers, with major layoffs across tech, professional services and life sciences, I came to the conclusion that it is as important as ever to honor the contributions of those in our circles. Moreover, as our workplaces become increasingly diverse, understanding how to provide employee recognition — unique, meaningful feedback to employees of varying ages, background and cultures — should be top of mind for more leaders. 

As a management consultant working with constantly shifting teams across a variety of projects, I often find myself questioning how to ensure that my own team members feel seen and appreciated, even in the context of our time-boxed engagements. Here’s what I’ve been focusing on over the past few months, in an effort to contribute positively to a culture of recognition at my own organization.

Employee recognition starts with the differences

For feedback to feel meaningful, it can’t be generic. When considering how to celebrate the great work of teammates, mentees or those reporting to me on a project, I realized that offering recognition isn’t like giving a gift. Recognition is a two-part exchange. For it to hold any value, the way you choose to appreciate someone has to actually resonate with them. That may mean being willing and vulnerable enough to recognize or honor employees in a manner that might be different from how you would want to be recognized yourself. 

I’ve learned that resonant recognition is tailored to the personality and values of the individual receiving it. While one person on your team may find small handouts like gift cards meaningful, another may prefer public acknowledgment in front of their peers and another may feel valued by being treated to a one-on-one lunch. 

The ways in which we experience feeling valued are, to some extent, intertwined with who we are. Therefore, more meaningful forms of feedback and recognition are possible when employees are empowered to bring their authentic selves to work.

Timing matters

One of the most meaningful moments of recognition that I received early in my career wasn’t at the end of a project, but right in the middle. I was becoming frustrated with some of the monotony of my day-to-day activities and was clearly unhappy with the work I’d been asked to execute. One of my organization’s senior leaders came to me and said, in essence, “Marc, I know this sucks, but you’re doing a good job and we need you on this. Once this is done, we’ll get you somewhere good.” 

More often than not, we wait until the job’s finished to give folks feedback on their work or their deliverables. In high-stress or volatile situations, that can be a mistake. I challenge leaders to consider when their feedback or appreciation will have the greatest impact on the person receiving it. 

In industries facing greater uncertainty, more regular feedback and reassurance can help keep stress or anxiety below the boiling point for junior employees. What’s more, outward appreciation can offer a needed shot of motivation when things are most challenging.

Be predictable

For recognition to be genuine, it shouldn’t be spotty or unfair. One of my mentors and I recently discussed what he refers to as the “Employee of the Month problem.” If such a program is set up fairly with transparent, quantifiable and, most importantly, objective criteria, then it’s quite likely that some people would win the award repeatedly, while others never would. 

For many leaders, this creates a dilemma. The options going forward are: to accept the fact that some employees will receive recognition more often than others; make the award’s criteria increasingly subjective and opaque so that you can give it out to a wider group of employees; or discontinue the award altogether. 

The point isn’t that we should be seeking out some sort of ruthless model for recognition that only rewards employees who are top performers in a handful of discrete categories. It’s that leaders should make it easy for employees to know when they’re doing well. Feedback should never be a surprise, and recognition should be reflective of the values espoused by the organization. If rewards and appreciation feel random, then, to some, they’ll feel unfair.

If you talk the talk, then walk the walk

Respect isn’t demonstrated through a singular gesture but rather by what we repeatedly do. Though it might sound cliché, the best way to recognize your team is to foster an environment of respect and trust. Positive feedback and rewards don’t feel genuine in toxic, stressful working cultures. Rather, they feel like cheap decoys, meant to distract from the underlying rot. Putting employees in positions that maximize their individual strengths and play to their passions shows them that you understand the unique value they bring to the team. 

Part of creating an environment of positivity and recognition is being willing to trust the capabilities of the people around you, even when difficulties like challenging clients or looming deadlines arise. Rather than taking responsibility away from more junior team members in the pursuit of efficiency, empower them to act, value their competency and support their success. While it isn’t always easy, doing so demonstrates to your team that you have faith in their ability to grow. 

Ultimately, showing appreciation to employees and teammates isn’t about making grand gestures — it’s about fostering a culture that makes them feel valued every day. 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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