Employee Recognition Training: Teach Individual Recognition

I’ve experienced something that is unintentionally cruel: when you do 90 percent of the work on a project, yet are not thanked individually, but just as one member of a large group. On one hand, it’s appropriate and the right thing to do to give thanks to all involved in a successful project, however small the part. On the other hand, there is something insensitive about not singling out for special thanks the contributor who put in the vast majority of the work. It leaves the employee who did most of the heavy lifting puzzled, wondering if they really were no more important to the project’s success than the people whose roles were only ancillary. It’s demoralizing to be told in so many words that you are just one cog in a larger machine rather than the individual who provided the most essential components of the project. I’m not recommending supporting players not be thanked, but that the main contributor be given added thanks in the group e-mail or memo, as in: “Sincere thanks to all who made this project a success, and most of all, to our superb manager, Mary Jo.” When I say “special thanks,” I mean something as simple as that kind of added individual mention.

In March, The Great Place to Work Institute posted a blog by Tabitha Russell noting the criteria of effective recognition, including the importance of acknowledging the successful employee as an individual. She refers to the importance of individualizing gifts, but I believe the same logic can be extended to the importance of an individualized thank you. “It feels good to be acknowledged as an individual,” the author points out, along with the following recognition keys:

  • They’re personal. It feels good to be acknowledged as an individual—like people are making the effort to get to know you. For example, rather than giving employees a generic gift card, try to find out what their favorite restaurant or shop is and present them with a gift certificate, along with a thank you note. For the same cost, you can build a more personable relationship.
  • They’re specific. Getting positive feedback on a specific accomplishment will show employees you’re interested in their unique contributions, and encourages the behaviors and attributes you’re looking for in their work.
  • They’re all-inclusive. Not everyone works on the front lines of a project. Recognizing the role that people and teams who aren’t client facing play is important in giving them a sense of ownership and pride in your business.
  • They’re reinforced by leadership. Peer-to-peer recognition is great, but leadership can intentionally create a culture of thanks by taking the time to reach out and thank teams, business units, or the entire company and set the tone for a culture of thanks.

Russell also points to a few companies that do recognition well, including Whole Foods Market, which has a “permanent Appreciations agenda” in team meetings; Southern Ohio Medical Center, which takes the time to find out how each individual employee would like to be thanked; and Professional Placement Resources, which has employees send specific thank you notes to internal and external customers.

In addition to the unintentional cruelty of not spotlighting the heaviest lifter of a successful project, there’s a more intentional, strategic aspect of lumping in the heavy-lifter with the ancillary players: workplace competition. Part of training bosses to give an individualized thank you is to let them know your company culture doesn’t tolerate managers who perceive themselves in competition with those who work under them. In what I experienced, I think the manager guilty of not offering individualized thanks didn’t want to acknowledge the heavy lifting by the primary player because he thought it would reveal his own role was much smaller than his boss had been led to believe.

Training managers to think of themselves primarily as support systems for those they supervise is essential. They need to know they will judged as much for the performance of their team as for their own work. Without that understanding, there often is resentment rather than gratitude for successful employees.

In addition to thanking whole groups of people, does your company also individually acknowledge employees who carried the heaviest workload for successful projects?