A leader’s guide to effective employee recognition

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Effective recognition and feedback is hugely powerful. Leaders that notice good performance and build recognition into their daily routine will improve team performance and motivation. 

 What is effective employee recognition?

Before you consider how best to give recognition, you need to understand what effective recognition looks like.

It’s not about a vague ‘Thanks for everything today’ as someone leaves the building at the end of their shift. What do you mean by ‘everything’? Who is your recognition aimed at? What exactly did they do that’s worth thanking them for? 

Imagine how that individual feels when you are vague with your recognition. They probably smile and thank you back, but deep down they’re probably confused. They might go home feeling positive, but if they don’t understand what they’ve done to deserve this praise, they won’t know to do it again.

In my experience, it’s also vital to align employee recognition with what your organisation is striving to achieve. It’s an opportunity to lead by example and bring to life the values and culture that are essential in a successful organisation. 

Effective recognition is thoughtfulspecificpersonal and timely. Without these elements, you may as well not bother uttering any words at all!

Without further ado, here’s the Zest for Life guide to providing effective employee recognition…


The words you use are equally important as the action of recognition itself. Take some time, choose your words carefully and consider their impact. The card or email you send may be kept for a long time. 

It’s also important to consider the person you’re recognising and their preferences. I’ve talked about this in a previous post – New ways to notice exceptional performers


Detail helps a person build up a picture of exactly what they did that was good. This picture will stay in their mind and lead to them repeating the action. 

Being precise with your recognition enables you to demonstrate how the person’s contribution links in to your organisational goals and culture. When you communicate how their performance has helped you towards achieving your goals, your team will understand exactly what you’re striving to achieve. When you recognise specific behaviours it provides a clear link to your values. 

Through being specific, your team will understand how things are to be done within the organisation, and know how they can do this by living your values. When everyone in your team is clear about what, why and how things should be done, they will want to perform. 


We are human! We need to know that what we are doing is noticed, we like to feel valued, we like people to notice that we exist.

Personalising your message is hugely powerful. It makes the recognition more meaningful, memorable and genuine. 

It’s not enough to take a generic Thank You card and scribble your name in it. Use the person’s name and describe how their actions made a difference. Tell them how seeing this made you feel and what the impact is on the team and your organisation.

Where possible, try to present a handwritten card in person to make the occasion special. 

With this level of thought and detail there can be no confusion as to why you have noticed their good performance. Being personal will lead to continued performance at a high level. 


When you see or hear about someone doing something exceptional, it’s crucial to take action straight away. Leaving it until the next day or the end of the week reduces the impact of what you have to say. Responding efficiently creates a real wow factor with the person or people involved. Imagine doing something really well and going back to your desk to find an email waiting for you recognising how great you’ve been today. Imagine how that person will go home feeling proud and full of positive energy) and return the next day with a renewed zest for life and focus on their role. Leaders who act swiftly with recognition build strong and effective teams.

Regular positive recognition keeps people on track, builds confidence and leads to exceptional performance.


Look for what’s good, not for what’s wrong

It’s disappointing to hear leaders state openly, “I will let you know if you do anything wrong”. Believe me, I’ve experienced leaders who do this and the impact on their team is not good. Everyone in the team is on edge, wondering if today will be the day their leader notices them doing something wrong.

This (I believe) is the behaviour of a lazy leader. 

It’s the behaviour of someone who can’t be bothered to show interest in how the team is performing: a leader who only recognises performance to reprimand, not praise. 

Please try to look for what’s being done well and recognise this. Don’t be a lazy leader! 

A personal challenge

Write one note per week to a person, no matter what their role is in your organisation, whether they’re in your team or not. Recognise what they did well - even the smallest of details count. 

As exceptional leaders know, it’s these small things that build up to make amazing things happen.