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August 8, 2022 2:28 PM EDT

A growing number of workers describe themselves as actively disengaged in their jobs. Quit rates are staying high. The case for active employee-recognition programs—a proven driver of both engagement and retention—is clear.

But most workplaces do little to take advantage of the tool at their disposal, according to a new report from Gallup and people-management software company Workhuman. Some 81% of leaders surveyed said employee recognition isn’t a company priority, and roughly two-thirds said they have no budget dedicated to it. Just 23% of employees strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the amount of recognition they receive.

Structured programs such as financial performance incentives are more likely to drive satisfaction and belonging, according to the research. But less formal initiatives also carry more weight than leaders often realize. Research shows that there’s a direct correlation between managers’ expressions of gratitude and employees’ performance—and that managers tend to overestimate how clearly they’re communicating that gratitude.

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What does it mean to appreciate someone for a job well done in a way that feels authentic, meaningful, and motivating? We asked three experts to share their best practices. Here’s what they had to say:

The answer likely looks different for each employee, notes Chris Schembra, founder of the relationship-building firm 7:47 Club: “We always say, ‘not all gratitude given is gratitude heard,’” he says. “When thinking about how to show gratitude in the workplace, step into the shoes of the other person to understand how they’d like to be recognized. Is it through public words of recognition? Is it through a gift? Is it through time off?”

“Recognition should be framed in terms that motivate the employee,” agrees Dr. Ken Matos, director of people science at Culture Amp, who recommends asking employees directly about what those terms are. “The same action can be recognized for its positive impact on other people or how impressive it is in comparison to others’ accomplishments. The first frame appeals to relationship-centered employees, and the latter will be appreciated by an achievement-oriented employee.” Here’s more of Matos’ advice on best practices, in his own words:

  • Move quickly. “As with most feedback, recognition should be timely and specific: it will feel more authentic, show that you are actively paying attention and truly understand the employee’s contribution. Delayed recognition is still better than none so don’t fail to provide recognition if you are not able to do so immediately.”
  • Share widely. “One other area that is less straightforward is public or private recognition: some employees love public praise while others dread it. In general, I’d suggest erring on the side of public recognition unless the employee specifically requests otherwise. Recognition is about more than making employees feel good and encouraging commitment to the company. Public recognition also serves to signal to coworkers and leaders that an employee is talented and should be considered a valuable team member.”
  • Tie it to employees’ trajectories. “It’s much easier to convince a performance calibration committee that a regularly praised employee deserves a promotion than one whose name they are hearing for the first time. Similarly, recognition can help employees establish a reputation for competence that can help them be more influential, especially if the praise is visible to other departments in the organization.”

Motivation researcher Ayelet Fishbach, professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and author of Get It Done, stresses the importance of matching the reward to the action being recognized. “If you wish to reward financial performance (eg, the employee brought in a lot of business), give them a bonus,” she explains. “If you want to recognize their leadership, give them social reward or recognition by the people they lead.”

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