Almost 80% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. Its clear recognition is vital, but how do you do it effectively?

Recognition is a huge motivator. R
esearch by the OC Tanner Institute shows that almost 80% of employees who quit their jobs say lack of appreciation was a key reason for leaving. The study also found that in North America, 65% of employees had received no recognition, or appreciation in the workplace in the last year.

Employee Engagement

Recognition is a fundamental human need. People who feel recognised at work contribute more to the workplace, in other words they are more engaged. Research shows that the benefits of employee engagement include:

  • employees showing up for work
  • less staff turnover
  • fewer accidents
  • less employee theft
  • higher customer satisfaction
  • better productivity and profitability

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Tips for Meaningful Appreciation

So how do you offer recognition to your employees to keep them engaged? People have a finely tuned gauge when it comes to praise, so you need to make your recognition meaningful.

Focused and specific recognition not only makes them feel good, they’re also more likely to do the same thing again in the future. 

Focused and Specific 

Employees need to understand exactly why they are being recognised. Focused and specific recognition not only makes them feel good, they’re also more likely to do the same thing again in the future

For example just saying, ‘Hey, you did a great job today’ is not very motivating. Instead, try ‘In your presentation today, the way that you explained the statistics really brought our problem to life and helped us to sell through this solution.’ That is much more motivating.


We need to be recognising people at the time that they are doing great things. That’s how you can make sure it sticks. If you tell me that something I did three months ago really helped you, it’s nice, but it’s not very motivational. Tell me at the time and it really gives me a lift.


Different employees should be recognised in different ways, and so should different achievements. If you give everybody in the business the same sort of recognition no matter what they’ve done, it doesn’t feel very meaningful

For example, maybe I did something that saved the company $10,000, while someone else did something that cost the company $10,000, and we both receive the same recognition. Both things may have been great, but as an employee it’s difficult for me to feel recognised based on my achievement


When I do workshops around recognition with employees, I ask people to tell me about their best experience of receiving recognition. And every single time it is something really personal. 

One person told me ‘I had a love of karate, and my manager went to my favourite karate supply store and bought me some equipment. It meant so much because she knew that was an activity I was passionate about, it was really personalised’. 

Another said ‘my manager knew that I loved a particular wine bar in the city, and he took the team there and bought me a bottle of amazing wine’.

Larger Purpose

Recognition should be tied to the team and the larger purpose. It should contribute to the story about what matters in the workplace. If I’m doing something that goes directly to the goals of my workplace, that’s more of a reason to recognise me, then if I’ve decided on an idea that it doesn’t quite fit in. 

Failed Recognition Programs

Many business owners have told me that they’ve tried recognition programs, and they just haven’t worked. For example, one of my clients paid for a very expensive online platform, which allowed people to recognise each other and award each other employee points. The employees could then use those points to purchase things. But my client was really frustrated. She told me ‘we paid all this money for this platform, and then nobody used it.’ 

It’s a common story. Online platforms have their place, and there are some good ones out there (get in touch if you know a good one!) but to me, the problem with recognition programs is that we humans have a negative bias. We are much more likely to notice things that are going badly than things that are going well. Another problem is that these points systems just don’t feel very personal. 

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Successful Recognition Programs

So if online platforms don’t work to create meaningful recognition and employee engagement, what does?

Five Languages

One of the frameworks that we like to recommend to people is called Appreciation at Work. There’s also a book called The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman, and Paul White. It’s about recognising that not everybody likes to be appreciated in the same way. Chapman and White have defined these five languages:

  1. words of affirmation
  2. quality time
  3. acts of service
  4. tangible gifts
  5. physical touch

I have known people that feel the need to recognise good work by giving money to their employees, in the form of bonuses or vouchers. They are completely focused on financial gifts as the only meaningful way to recognise their employees. The reality is they think this way because they value financial incentives, but maybe their employee doesn’t. 

I have also worked with somebody who really disliked words of affirmation, it was her least preferred form of appreciation. If I stood up in a room and told everyone that she’d done a great job, she told me it would make her feel sick, and she would wish the floor would swallow her up. So instead I would write my words of appreciation in a card and give it to her. 

So one important step is to work out the preferred way each employee would like to be appreciated. Chapman and White have a tool for this on their website

Levels of Recognition

It’s also important to develop a system that offers different levels of recognition. For example:

  • Shout outs Just telling someone what you appreciated and why. You may do that in a public forum, if that’s something that they enjoy.
  • Small gifts This could be a simple card, branded chocolates, or be a company T-shirt.
  • Larger gifts These might be $50 to $100 in value, things like vouchers or wine or, if we’re working remotely, it could be a MenuLog or UberEats voucher. 
  • Team celebrations  These can get up to a few hundred dollars, things like morning teas, Friday drinks, or taking the team out to lunch in someone’s honour. 

You can get really organised around small gifts by using what I call the Recognition Rolodex. This is a little box on my desk with a Rolodex of cards in it. Each card says something like, ‘have a longer lunch today’ or ‘take a day off’. These small things can be really meaningful and I can grab one and give it to an employee immediately, making it easy to provide timely recognition. And it can also be really personal, for example if someone really likes coffee, you can choose a card that says ‘grab yourself a coffee on me’. 


It’s hard to make a program succeed without accountability, but how do you do that with a recognition program? One way to do it is to ask every manager at your monthly meeting to describe who they have recognised this month, and why. Every manager is accountable for recognising at least one person each month.

Now, what happens over time, is that people know this question will come up in the meeting, so they start to look out for someone to recognise. They try to ‘catch’ someone doing something right. It’s a great way to overcome the negative bias I mentioned earlier. 

Allocate Responsibility

Another trick is to nominate someone in the organisation to keep an eye on this. So you’ve got your cards and chocolates and T-shirts, all your recognition goodies. Now you appoint someone to monitor whether you’re moving it. 

Link to Values

It can be easy to fall into the trap of recognising only performance. But it’s important to recognise not just what people are doing, but they’re how they’re doing it. This is why many organisations tie their recognition programmes to values. Some use an online form to fill out when you are nominating someone for a higher level of recognition, to ensure that other employees know why someone is being recognised and how it links to the organisation’s values. 

It provides a moment of reflection and it’s a safeguard against rewarding behaviour that perhaps gets results, but not in the right way, for example through being a bull in a china shop. Rewarding the wrong behaviour can be really annoying and demotivating to other team members.

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