“Brains, like hearts, go where they are appreciated.” — Robert McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense and president of the World Bank

  • Whether or not your team or organization develops a healthy recognition and appreciation culture depends to a large extent on the personal example you set. If you manage-by-exception or Gap-Zap people, most others will follow your lead. Energy and morale will be low. In this uncaring environment, recognition programs will be contrived and out of place. They won’t work for long.

    The same is true if you use a lot of flattery and manipulation. Recognition programs may create a sharp spike of excitement and energy, but eventually the organization’s culture will determine their ongoing effectiveness.

  • Get feedback on your personal recognition skills and appreciation habits. Look for the connections between that feedback and the team or organization recognition programs you’re using. Are they aligned?
  • Here are some keys to giving sincere recognition and genuine appreciation:
    • Recognize or show your appreciation as immediately as possible after the event or action you want to point out.
    • Be specific. Avoid general platitudes and global statements.
    • Mention how the action or behavior was personally helpful or fits within the bigger team or organization vision, values, and purpose.
    • Keep it brief. Long, detailed compliments can be uncomfortable and sound over done.
    • Ask if there’s anything you can do to provide further support or service to that person or team.
    • Ask yourself whether that exchange helped enlarge the team or individual’s self-determination and self-motivation or did it increase their dependence on your approval?
  • Don’t just recognize top performers and superhuman efforts. Eighty percent of your people aren’t shining stars, but their solid day-to-day performance keeps your team and organization alive. Even small increases in their energy and enthusiasm will have a dramatic cumulative effect. Develop the habit of looking for incremental performance or improvements that deserve to be recognized. Make this part of your personal improvement plan to strengthen this vital leadership habit.

  • Never compare or contrast teams or individuals.
  • Sincere recognition skills and genuine appreciation habits aren’t turned on at work and turned off when you go home (flattery and manipulation can be). Develop the habit of pointing out the positive at home, with friends, neighbors, at social activities, and so on.
  • Show appreciation for good tries, pilots, and mistakes that advance organization learning, especially if that experience is shared openly and widely for all to benefit from and build upon.
  • My wife, Heather, has taught me the value of sending each other cards for every occasion (birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s day, Father’s day, Valentine’s day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc.). It’s a powerful appreciation habit. She’s also shown how important and valued a short personal note of thanks can be. Put those occasions in your calendar. Send notes to team members’ homes. It’s those little things that over time make a big difference.
  • Lead the applause for anyone or team who makes a presentation to your team.
  • Where it fits, recognize people in public or in front of others. Always deal with performance problems in private.
  • Always say “thank you.”
  • As with communications, use every recognition channel you can — public and private, oral and written — to reinforce and support success, accomplishments, and progress.

Like improvement efforts, effective reward and recognition is an integrated process, not a bolt-on program. Since I can’t make my team or organization into something different from me, it starts with me.