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Five key strategies that are low cost, low effort and high impact

By Sarah McVanel

The exponential power of recognition is when recognition catches you off-guard and makes a beeline for the emotional centres of your brain. The element of surprise makes recognition more meaningful and memorable; we’re so caught up in our daily life, working as hard as we

can and plugging through the growing list of to-dos, that when somebody takes a moment out to recognize you in a unique way, it has an even greater impact.

So how can busy leaders bring this into their practice when there’s already too much to do? Adopt these five principles, which take virtually no time or financial resources.

1. Up the element of surprise

Surprise is the cornerstone of recognition, having a greater and more lasting impact. It can be unexpected in a variety of ways – the person delivering it, the way it’s delivered or when the employee thought no one was paying attention. The brain is wired for novelty; we pay attention to the things that stand out.

Leaders, it’s about being present, paying attention and caring about those small moments – not letting them pass you by. It’s about finding creative ways to express your gratitude, such as a noteworthy time or the delivery method for sharing appreciation.

A great example is a new leader in a small not-for-profit who loves to knit; she found out each of her staff members’ favourite colour and knitted each employee a scarf for the holidays. The recipients were touched at both the time she took and that she paid attention to their favourite colours.

2. Create shared meaning by paying attention

Often, we don’t acknowledge the important life events in employees’ lives. We talk a lot about work-life balance, but how often do we actually acknowledge the important things that are going on outside of work: buying a first home, welcoming a new baby, an adult child graduating from university, etc. These are important, ever-changing events; think about the impact of simply noticing, acknowledging and celebrating with them.

A busy CIO overheard that someone’s son graduated with honours and got his dream job. The CIO found a card in the local drug store that said “Congratulations” on the cover and on the inside, “You now have your house back!” It was funny and after the laughter subsided, that employee knew they were more than “just another analyst.”

3. Involve the family

When hard-working staff sacrifice time away from their family, this is the perfect time to not only surprise the employee, but also their family members. How about sending a pizza to the family of somebody working late, with a message saying, “We wanted to say thank you for being willing to spare mom or dad, again, because they’re working really hard on a project.” The cost of doing this is probably the same as a gift card, but the impact is dramatically different.

If this is out of your budget, consider a more cost-effective way to show family how much you appreciate their mom, dad or spouse. Why not send a card? It costs a stamp and the price of a card. Plus, almost 90 per cent of people report they appreciate receiving written notes.

4. Follow the platinum rule

Leaders know that employees want to be appreciated and valued, but do those leaders know how employees want to be appreciated? Two things tend to happen: leaders appreciate people the way they like to be appreciated, or they focus on what the corporation most values (often the performance standards they are accountable for). However, the Great Place to Work Institute™ has found individual achievement is more sought by employees than celebrations.

The Conference Board of Canada’s longitudinal work shows that Canadian organizations are spending most of their money on those large celebrations such as milestone years of service and retirements. To better impact 90 per cent of people, offer a verbal thank-you, personalized words of acknowledgement and/or a written thank-you.

5. Encourage peer-to-peer recognition

Not only is peer-to-peer recognition free or virtually free – every organization, no matter the industry, can afford to have and provide thank-you cards, e-cards or have poster boards around where people can write acknowledgements to each other – having methods and spaces that encourage peers to recognize each other fuels teamwork, collaboration, respect and support behaviours.

Recognition is not only on the shoulders of leadership, everyone can take part. Create an army of positive culture stewards. Recognition is the fastest way to boost engagement, trust, satisfaction and continuous improvement, and the more people leading the charge, the better.

One Home Depot store took a bulletin board that had no real purpose and turned it into a “kudos board” where employees could post their shout-outs to each other. After some initial enthusiasm, the store leaders noticed the number of kudos being posted per day was declining, so an employee suggested that they start posting the kudos backwards with the person’s name. It became easy to see which cards hadn’t been read yet and all of a sudden there was a renewed energy with staff telling colleagues, “Hey, when you’re on your break check out the board, you have a kudos waiting for you!”

One more thought

Leaders should examine what recognition program is already working in their workplace. When leaders do more of what is already working, it’s easier to gain momentum when adding and tweaking existing effective approaches. Consider:

  • Where is recognition happening already?
  • Where is recognition part of daily discourse?
  • Where could you experiment with different recognition strategies and settings?

Even when financial resources, time and a formal program are unavailable, leaders can always start a conversation or meeting to acknowledge what’s working and hear from others.

We often fail to practice the very acts that we want most ourselves. It’s small steps forward that can begin to slowly shift our culture and it rests with leadership. 

Sarah McVanel is the founder of Greatness Magnified.

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