How Giving Great Recognition Motivates People

Understand the impact you make when you recognize people the right way for their positive contributions at work.

People from around the world in a variety of occupations all have an inherent need to feel appreciated for who they are and recognized for what they do. But what if we’ve all been thinking of recognition the wrong way?

Take, for example, the definition of recognition from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): “The acknowledgement of human achievement made publicly or privately, and can involve a monetary or non-monetary reward.”

Does it have to be an achievement or can it simply be good work done well? It’s OK to respect the individual preferences for public or private recognition. However, does recognition always have to involve a reward?

I believe you can give people recognition without having to give them a reward. But whenever you give someone a reward, recognition always must accompany it, and this often is neglected.

Perhaps we have made recognition far too transactional.


Recent brain-imaging studies using functional MRI scans reveal different regions of the brain respond to recognition and rewards. For example, they activate the caudate nucleus when receiving feedback through communication. The ventral striatum mediates reward cognition, reinforcement, and motivational saliency. And the medial prefrontal cortex, as the name implies, at the front of the brain, mediates personality expression and decision-making, and moderates social behavior.

Researchers have found that positive social feedback and relative social status, at work or in society, are represented in the same brain regions as monetary rewards. While the brain “lights up” in response to higher payoffs in rewards, there is greater activity within the brain in response to more positive evaluations of the self. Being treated fairly by others also stimulates the same brain regions associated with rewards.


Employee recognition is not what you think it is. It is not just an acknowledgement of someone and his or her performance. It does not have to be a tangible or monetary reward or incentive. And recognition is not exactly feedback. So what is it?

What if we redefine recognition as transferring positive emotions and feelings from one person to another? How you convey those emotions is another matter. It may be through your words, your actions, or through things. But these are simply a vehicle to communicate and express your feelings for the person and his or her positive behaviors. Receiving recognition given the right way activates the brain and the emotional centers that cause a person to “feel” recognized.


There are many practices that lend themselves to giving more meaningful recognition to people every day. But here we will explore just three recognition practices that, if done the right way, will help you give real recognition wherever you work. These practices have a deeper rationale to connecting with people emotionally and making an imprint on the brain and mind.

1. Conveying emotion and recognition through voice. Our voice is the most powerful of recognition practices because it carries our positive emotions and perspective about a person and his or her actions. Hearing a more emotive voice is stronger than sight and facial expressions in accurately detecting emotion. We must use enthusiasm in our voice when recognizing employees—this usually comes across with a slightly higher-pitched tone and a faster speaking rate. When two people are talking and understand one another, the listener’s brain activity literally mirrors that of the speaker’s voice with just a short delay.

2. Being specific, which gives more authentic recognition. We need to move away from using the trite and often used phrases of “Good job!” or “Well done!” In isolation, these typical statements mean little. Research on effective feedback shows it requires affective and objective comments.

Learn to be specific in two ways. First, part of your recognition needs to specifically describe the actions or positive behaviors observed or heard about. Second, you must tell the individual specifically the difference or impact his or her actions have made to you, peers, a customer, or to some business outcome for the company. Your recognition is more meaningful and authentic when you give it this way. And you’ll trigger some of those reinforcement areas in the brain.

3. Adhering to the principle that real recognition is all in the eyes. The eyes have been described as “the windows of the soul.” They are a great connecting force when giving recognition. Eye contact is gazing directly at another person’s eyes, and mutual eye contact is when two people make eye contact simultaneously. We make eye contact approximately 75 percent of the time when listening and 41 percent of the time when speaking with our conversational partners. So, where culturally appropriate, use eye contact to help elevate the quality of the recognition you express to others. Russian writer Sholem Aleichem once wrote, “When the heart is full, the eyes overflow.”


How does recognition done correctly, following these and other communication and social science principles, make such a difference to people?

It’s because people know when they’ve been recognized properly, because they actually feel it. The recipient of recognition has synchrony with the giver’s brain, according to brain imagery research. By being specific in two ways, the recognized employee knows exactly what the recognizer has appreciated, and he or she has greater meaning and engagement in his or her work. And the eyes will overflow with the positive feelings you have in valuing people and their contributions.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at or visit

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