6 steps to strengthen your recognition system


People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition.

I remember puzzled faces when I asked my team members: what is it that you would like to be recognized for? That was an obvious question to me, to start building my team’s recognition system. It wasn’t so obvious to them, though.

Surprisingly, when I was trying to share my own ideas how to boost the recognition within the department, I kept hearing: ‘’we don’t have the money’’. So, I thought: ok, so let’s change that perspective and if I can’t change it for the whole department, I will start with my own team.

It worked.  Within a year, I was sharing my good practices with the leadership team so that they could follow and increase employee engagement.

What was my strategy? Here are the first 6 steps I took to start the ball rolling.

Step 1: Show me the money!

I was amazed to see that only a few leaders knew what their team’s budget was. This refers to staff costs as well as recognition. Do you know your budget? What’s your magic number? If you can’t give the answer, try to find out. Ask your manager if there is any fixed amount or %. Planning your recognition budget will be much easier if you know how much you can spend.

Step 2: What’s your plan?

Most of the time, the budget is distributed annually or quarterly. Don’t spend everything in one go! Create categories you want to recognize your team for and allocate the money per month or quarter. Remember that this allocation is not set in stone. Be flexible when an unexpected recognition is required.

Here are some examples which will help you to plan it wisely:

  1. Split the budget into buckets. Examples of these categories might be quarterly performance (e.g. KPIs), additional value for important projects, best customer or stakeholders’ feedback, teamwork and helper of the month etc. Book the money for each category so you know how much you have in each bucket.
  2. Recognize for behaviours – KPIs build performance, but behaviours build culture. Think about behaviours you want to promote within your organization. Recognize the role models so that others could follow.
  3. The manager’s mysterious envelope – one of my favourite categories. Each month or quarter, I gave my own personal recognition to one or two team members. And it wasn’t about KPIs or any big projects. It was something that caught my attention and I personally appreciated. It can be a difficult conversation with a client someone was afraid of or unselfish support for others. The choice is yours!
  4. Have a list of who you already recognized. Nothing works worse if you award the same people all the time. Let’s say you have 50 people in your team and you recognize 5 of them for their top results. 10% of your team would be happy and acknowledged. What about the rest of 90%? It’s simple maths. Think about how you can make the rest feel valuable. An inventive & diverse recognition system can work miracles.

Step 3: No money – what’s next?

As much as we all would like to have big recognition budgets, the reality might be different. So, what then? Be creative! Do the brainstorming on recognition ideas. Ask yourself few questions:

  1. What small gifts people appreciate?
  2. How can I split $500 into smaller pieces so that I could recognize 90% of my team?
  3. What other ‘’thank you’s” I can use to make my team feel special?
  4. How can we spend time together and have some fun?

I’m sharing a few examples from my own experience. I can tell you that even now, people come back to me saying that they still remember them:

  • personally written ‘’thank you’’ cards with animals, each resembling one team member;
  • breakfast of champions – eating out together in a cafeteria to celebrate a particular success;
  • a chocolate bar or fruit at the time of work peaks;
  • one day off on top of the regular annual leave days;
  • a small morning get-together for a tea or coffee to ask ‘’how are you?’’ and truly listen to each other;
  • a small sweet given to a person working long hours at the time when you’re leaving the office with a genuine question: “when are you finishing?”

Simple things make a difference!

Step 4: Give empowerment.

Don’t assume – ask!

We all know that teamwork and empowerment build engagement. Why don’t you use recognition as one of the elements? Try these out:

  • Don’t assume – ask! Can you recall a gift you got and you immediately thought: ‘OMG, really?’. You don’t want your team to feel this way. Ask your team members what they want. It can be a discussion in a team meeting or if you manage a larger team, set up a small working group with a few representatives.
  • Share your own ideas and agree a joint recognition system.
  • Encourage to have at least 1 team recognition which would be awarded freely by your team members (e.g. helper of the month, biggest teamwork initiative etc.).
  • Let the group communicate the outcomes to the rest – it will give much more empowerment and will strengthen the transparency.
  • Review the system regularly with your team members and look for feedback & new ideas.

Step 5: Transparency above all!

When you have everything agreed – make sure your team knows what it really means.

  • What are the categories of recognition?
  • What are the criteria?
  • When, how & who makes the decision?
  • What can I do to be awarded?
  • What behaviours are recognized?
  • Where can I share my feedback?

Keep the conversation open and people will feel their opinion matters.

Step 6: Walk the talk.

I remember one of my team members walking up to me when she didn’t get her recognition on time. She said: ‘’a lack of recognition equals punishment”. I followed up on this one and indeed Thomas Gordon (American psychologist) carried out extensive research around children & teenage upbringing. Apparently, if we were promised something and we don’t get it, it feels like a punishment. And it works for adults, too. Walking the talk is one of my favourite rules and it works in each area of leadership.

‘’a lack of recognition equals punishment”

Someone may challenge me saying that financial recognition loses the battle with other non-financial benefits including a great boss. And I do agree with it 100%, but that’s a topic for another blog article ????

A closing thought: the industry average for staff recognition is 1-2% of payroll. It’s a large money investment, so better the return of investment follows this spending. What’s striking is that very often the employees are not fully aware of the company’s recognition system. As a manager ask yourself a question: what’s your company recognition system?  Would your team know?

My personal recommendations:


2 insiring books:

♦ ‘The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace’ by Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Paul White

♦ ‘The Power of Thanks’ by Eric Mosley & Derek Irvine

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