Five Tips For Recognizing Outstanding Employees

If you fail to honor others, they will fail to honor you.

A popular TV commercial says we should “Just do it.” It’s cute, but it’s wrong.

As I wrote last week, there is no question that recognition is critical. It turns on peak performance quicker than anything else. However, you can’t “just do it.” You have got to do it right, or it won’t work. It may even backfire.

I know. I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and thousands of people. I’ve seen amazing successes take place when employees are truly “honored.” And I’ve seen employees fail to “honor” their managers when their managers give ineffective recognition.

So let me outline a few of the recognition principles I teach in my program on “Peak Performance: Motivating the Best in Others.” Follow these principles, and you’ll create a very positive, productive work environment.

1. Don’t accept anything but the best.

If you accept or reward anything less than the best from your employees, you may be stuck with that level of performance for a long time to come. But if you insist on excellence, you’ll get a lot more excellence from your employees. And you’ll have behavior that is more than worthy of recognition.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger knew that. During the Tonkin Gulf situation, Kissinger asked an assistant to prepare an analysis. The assistant worked for a week and put the document on Mr. Kissinger’s desk–only to have it returned within an hour. Affixed to the report was a note asking that it be redone.

The assistant dutifully redid it. He slept a total of nine hours for a week, working on the document night and day. He put the document on Mr. Kissinger’s desk, and again it was returned an hour later. This time Kissinger’s note said he expected better and asked that the work be done again.

And so the assistant went back to the drawing board once more. Another week of work was put into the report. He then asked if he could personally present the report to the secretary. When he came face to face with him, he said, “Mr. Kissinger, I’ve spent another sleepless week. This is the best I can do.” Henry Kissinger replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

Of course, that was a bit extreme. But you get the point. You need to get the best out of people, and when you do, you need to recognize it.

2. Reward the doers.

Employees are very sharp. They know who is doing the work, and who is just putting in time. So don’t recognize and reward everyone in the same way.

Larry Bossidy, Honeywell chairman, said, “If you reward equally, you will chase out the good players and keep the others. You will have a kind of socialism, which is inconsistent with a performance culture.” By rewarding the doers, employees will be quite aware of who and what is valued.

On the reverse side, do not praise ordinary performance. If you praise employees for doing routine tasks, they won’t be motivated to do any better. And if they do excellent work, your praise won’t mean as much.

3. Give variable recognition.

In other words, you don’t have to recognize every good thing your employees do. Indeed you shouldn’t. Some of the joy and satisfaction of a job well done should come from inside the employee.

So recognize, praise, appreciate, and encourage on an unpredictable time table. If your employees come to “expect” your recognition, it loses some of its motivational power.

In a similar sense, vary the recognition and reinforcement you give. You may say “Thank you” one time, give a small gift another time, and send a note on still another occasion.

4. Be specific.

General praise has very little motivational power. If you tell someone, “Atta boy…Good job…Neat…Great…Wonderful,” she may think you’re just saying it. She may not believe or accept your words of recognition.

Wait for something specific to praise. Then describe exactly what you like about the other person’s performance. She will know that your specific comment applies to her and not just anyone. And she’ll know which behavior is being reinforced.

Let’s say you’re pleased with your employee’s handling of a difficult customer. Look at the difference between these two comments. General recognition might sound like this, “You did a good job with that customer.” The employee wouldn’t even know what she did right. She would have to guess.

But consider how much more effective it would be if you said: “I liked the way you kept on paraphrasing what the customer was saying so he knew you understood him.” Such a comment would have a lot more credibility, and it’s quite likely that the employee would repeat the same behavior with the next difficult customer.

5. Use the employee’s name.

Go way back to the ancient Greeks, and you’ll find Plato and Socrates saying that most people consider their name to be the most beautiful sound in the world. In fact, names are so important that people pay more attention to sentences in which their name appears.

For example, if you hollered at your kid in the backyard, saying “It’s time for dinner,” your kid might not even hear a single word of what you say. But if you said, “Billy, time for dinner,” chances are a lot better that he would stop, look, and listen. So make sure you include the recipient’s name in the praise or recognition you give.

It’s okay to say, “I like the way you did that report.” But it would be so much better if you were specific and included the recipient’s name. Say, “Linda, the charts in your report made the data so easy to understand. And your listing of additional resources saved me a lot of research time. Good job.” Recognition of that sort has motivational power!

Action:  Select three “doers” this week who have done excellent work. Then make it a point to approach each of them to give them a few sentences of face-to-face praise. And when you do, make sure you give a specific statement of recognition that includes their name.