Ruining Recognition

When it comes to recognizing employee effort, it’s time to start worrying less about “fairness” and more about shining the light on work that makes a difference.

It’s hard to imagine that in today’s workplace, something as constructive, positive, and uplifting as recognition could go possibly wrong. After all, it’s free. And research consistently points to how effectively appreciation builds morale, engagement, and bottom-line results. But each and every day, well-meaning managers inadvertently and completely ruin it.

Consider these typical examples of how recognition runs amok in organizations:

  • Meet Max, a mid-level manager at a manufacturing and sales facility who heads a large department charged with reducing costs, increasing output, and expanding sales. His staff is working overtime, engaging in improvement committees, and experimenting with a range of new practices. It’s an environment that’s ripe for a little recognition. But Max has made a conscious decision not to start recognizing his people. He wants to be fair and is afraid that with such a large staff and so many hard workers, he might accidentally overlook an employee who is doing noteworthy work, hurt someone’s feelings, and undermine morale. So he chooses to keep his recognition to himself.
  • Then there’s Sarah, a nursing supervisor with 12 seasoned health-care professionals reporting to her. A real believer in the power of recognition, Sarah has created her own team award. A lovely glass star passes from recipient to recipient in her area. During the first huddle of each month, she makes a point of highlighting one employee. She even developed a spreadsheet to keep track of who’s received the star when… so she can make sure it’s fair and everyone gets it at some point during the year. She wonders why this recognition rotation isn’t leading to improved results. (Little does she know that her team takes bets on who’s “up” next.)
  • Finally, meet Leo, He’s fresh out of school and taking on his first supervisory assignment. Leo places a high value on collaboration and is committed to building greater teamwork in his department. One of his strategies is to engender team pride and cohesion by blurring the lines between the individuals and the group. Leo is famous for saying, “None of us can do anything alone.” So when someone does something well, the credit goes to the team. It’s only fair.

These examples highlight the confusion that exists in many organizations and with many managers around recognition. They’re cautionary tales that all point to the same moral: It’s time to start worrying less about “fairness” and more about shining the light on work that makes a difference. It’s time to stop undermining the power of recognition by:

  • Withholding it altogether
  • Wringing all meaning from it by meticulously ensuring that it’s spread 100 percent evenly across the team
  • Mindlessly crediting groups at the expense of individuals

Appreciation is at the heart of recognition, and it’s a powerful driver of human behavior. It reinforces competence, builds connections, promotes a sense of meaning, and addresses a deep psychological need that everyone brings to the workplace. And lack of appreciation over time can have devastating results. It undermines confidence, extinguishes passion, and distances people from the organization’s mission and their contributions to it.

There’s a clear “human case” for recognition. But there’s also a “business case” to be made. Let’s face it, when people feel genuinely appreciated and recognized, they’ll go the extra mile, bringing more creativity, attention, and effort to their work.

So rather than concerning ourselves with fairness, perhaps we should concern ourselves with figuring out how to weave more recognition into the workplace. And perhaps we should start by concerning ourselves with:

  • Who is doing standout work?
  • What specific behaviors support the business strategy?
  • Who is making a real difference to co-workers, the department, and/or the organization as a whole?
  • What are customers appreciating about the team’s work?
  • What kinds of skills and actions are required to meet goals and achieve results?

Questions such as these focus on what matters most to the organization while promoting genuine and results-producing recognition. They prompt managers to use recognition as a strategic tool to support the business. They help encourage more of the positive behaviors required for success—on the part of those receiving the recognition, as well as others who now know what’s valued and important and may try to perform similarly.

So do you still think that drawing attention to exemplary performance that drives results is unfair? Then by all means, be unfair. And while you’re unfairlyrecognizing others, also make sure to:

  • Keep it brief. We live in a sound-bite world. Long speeches are less effective than a wellcrafted 60-second message. Less is more.
  • Be concrete and specific. This classic advice is still frequently overlooked. “Good job” and “You’re the best” are lovely expressions that are easy to say. But generalities don’t leave people feeling appreciated, and they don’t telegraph to the rest of the group what behaviors are important. Focus as precisely as possible for best short- and long-term results.
  • Let others know not just what you appreciate but also why you appreciate it. Connect the dots between what you’re recognizing and why it’s important. This offers context, leaving the employee with a greater sense of meaning around his or her work.
  • Share the recognition as soon after the positive behavior as is reasonable. But remember that employees are not dogs who won’t make the connection if the expression of appreciation is delayed. There’s no statute of limitations on recognition. Sooner is best. But better late than never.
  • Be sincere. Recognition need not be grand or flowery. Research consistently confirms that the authentic, genuine expression of appreciation has powerful and long-term effects.
  • Put it in writing. Let’s be honest. You have a file with notes of praise tucked away for those days when you need a boost. So do your employees. An ephemeral verbal expression of appreciation is powerful, but when you document your sentiment, it becomes the recognition that “just keeps giving.”
  • Make it a family affair. Looking for another way to multiply the effects of recognition? Pass it along to a spouse or family member. At a company event or when someone significant to the person drops by the office, take a moment to repeat the positive message. You’ll immediately sense the enhanced pride, and those around your employee will continue the reinforcement in your absence.

Leaders must challenge their definitions of “fairness” with regard to recognition. It’s not fair to withhold positive comments about employee performance. It’s not fair to conceal what you value most in terms of your team’s behaviors or actions. And it’s certainly not fair to fail to embrace a leadership practice that can directly affect the bottom line.

So the next time you’re tempted to be “fair” by staying silent or you’re tempted to start acting like a kids’ soccer coach with trophies for everyone on the team, remember that ruining recognition isn’t fair either.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the co-author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want.” A consultant, speaker, trainer, and writer on a variety of leadership topics, Winkle Giulioni helps organizations create positive change that drives results. Learn more at

Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni is an author, consultant, trainer, and speaker who helps organizations tap their only sustainable competitive advantage: talent. One of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 speakers, she’s the author of "Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive" and co-author of the international bestseller, "Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go." Visit and connect with Julie on LinkedIn and Twitter.