Employee Recognition: 5 Paths to More Meaningful Rewards

Not all forms of Employee Recognition are created equal. In actuality, as human beings we aren’t profoundly motivated by the tangible reward or recognition itself. It’s about the meaning behind the reward. In fact, an international employee survey found that almost 60 percent of the most meaningful recognition is free. Employees are looking for meaning, not things. And that is the distinction I make about rewards and recognition programs that are “done right.” It is all too easy to drain the meaning out of employee recognition and miss the opportunity to create fulfillment and further inspire elevated contributions.

Here are five suggestions that will help you to execute employee recognition in a manner that will be meaningful, effective, and inspirational.

Personalize So You Don’t Trivialize

A cookie-cutter approach to employee recognition can make recipients feel as unappreciated as if they weren’t getting rewarded or recognized at all. Great managers take the time to understand how each employee likes to be recognized and what makes each individual employee feel valued. Start by asking your employees:

  • How do you like to be recognized? (e.g., formally or informally, in private or in public, as an individual or as part of a group, from a one-up manager/two-up manager/peer/direct report, verbally or in print)
  • What form do you like the reward to take? (e.g., words of appreciation, increased responsibility, salary increase, more autonomy, challenging new work, opportunity to showcase good work, time off, being leveraged as an expert, promotion, celebration events)

Take the time to ask. You might even share your own preferences. Flesh out the many forms rewards can take. Discuss similarities, differences, and new insights gained about each other. Identify specifically what you and your employee can do to fully value each other.

Get Everyone in on the Act

Managers don’t have to be the only ones handing out employee recognition. Encourage employees to practice peer-to-peer recognition and you will create a virtuous circle of meaning. The good news is that stimulating such powerful recognition can be relatively simple. When you catch people in the act of recognizing someone else, let them know how much you appreciate it–reward rewarding.

Remind people of the pay-it-forward effect their efforts will have. Provide simple recognition resources like thank-you cards or low-budget themed rewards. Simply choose to add peer-to-peer recognition to your options for rewarding and recognizing.

Be Frequent, But Not Frivolous

Odds are you will never hear people complaining that they are receiving too much recognition. And interestingly enough, the best workers that get the most praise are often the most insecure; it’s what drives them to perform (so don’t assume they are being over-recognized). For anyone, missed opportunities to reward and recognize are missed opportunities to energize.

However, remember that frequent, not frivolous, is the goal. Be clear about establishing what is important to reward and recognize (for the business and cultural mission). Whether it’s leadership, risk taking, collaboration, or any other important behavior/accomplishment, clarify the kinds of behaviors that will be rewarded.

And to maximize motivation linked to higher performance, be sure to celebrate results, not just activity. Identify anchor events that, when recognized, would derive memorable meaning and motivation for the employee. Such events as a heartfelt celebration when an employee leaves a work group, making a fuss over a new employee’s entry, or a thoughtfully executed recognition of an employee’s anniversary can increase the frequency of employee recognition in a meaningful manner.

Celebrate First Downs and Touchdowns

Beyond supporting the right frequency employee recognition, it is important to support the right breadth as well. When major results are achieved, there are invariably important milestones that happened along the way that enabled the major achievement. The supporting cast and results that led up to the major result should be celebrated, in addition to the major result itself. In this way you maximize the number of rightful participants in the meaning-making efforts.

Deliberate the Delivery of Employee Recognition

How you deliver rewards and recognition to employees can stick or crash the landing. Don’t kill the intent. You should think through the delivery with attention to detail. For example, sincerity is key; if it comes from the heart it sticks in the mind.

Also remember “Specificity is a must; general praise leads to a general malaise,” and “Timeliness is critical. Drift creates a rift.” Let employee recognition drift past the time a praise-worthy event occurred and you create a rift between receipt of the recognition and any potential for associated meaning. Finally, you should start from a core of a strong relationship with the recipient if at all possible, otherwise rewards and recognition from you won’t matter much.


Scott Mautz is an award winning inspirational key note speaker, course instructor, consultant, and 20+ year executive at Procter & Gamble (where he currently runs a 3 billion dollar business). He is also author of Make it Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning, a book named to the “Best of 2015” list by Soundview Business Books. In Make It Matter, Scott shows that the key to winning back the disengaged (and keeping the engaged, engaged) is to foster meaning at work, that is, give work a greater sense of personal significance, and thus, make work matter. Scott has been a passionate student and practitioner of creating fully energized, fulfilling work environments rich with meaning that ultimately lead to sustained elevated performance and that transform organizational health & satisfaction scores along the way. In seminars and course instruction, and via his book, he has deployed dozens of time-tested and proven practical tools to help managers craft such a meaning-rich ecosystem. Scott was born in New York and has an undergraduate degree from Binghamton University (1991) and an MBA from Indiana University (1994). He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter.

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