Numerous studies show that a major reason many people quit their jobs is that they feel unappreciated. Brains follow hearts to where they’re valued. As I wrote in Do You Focus on the Field of Wheat or Stone on the Hill?, too often managers point out what’s wrong while failing to recognize what’s right.

Some managers realize the need for positive reinforcement and try to provide some sort of recognition. But many make one or more common recognition missteps. And some weak leaders try manipulating with money. They keep fiddling with pay, bonuses, and financial incentives to find the elusive combination that will motivate people to higher performance. It’s lazy leadership and cynical coercion.

University of Michigan Business School’s study of team performance correlated to the frequency of praise and criticism found “The best-performing teams used about six times as many positive comments for every negative one. It found that the worst performing teams, on average, used three negative comments for every positive one.”

Recognition, celebration, and appreciation are powerful and renewable energy sources. It starts with valuing people. The next step is how you express that appreciation.

Recognition Do’s and Don’ts


  • Throw gasoline on the performance appraisal dumpster fire. Stop using this weakness-based, demotivating, and dysfunctional approach.
  • Correct, condemn, or complain about someone’s behavior in front of others. That’s the hallmark of a bully boss. ALWAYS have corrective coaching discussions in private.
  • Just recognize top performers and superhuman efforts. Eighty percent of your people aren’t shining stars, but their solid day-to-day performance keeps your team and organization alive. Even small increases in their energy and enthusiasm will have a dramatic cumulative effect.
  • Compare or contrast teams or individuals to foster unhealthy competition and jealousy.
  • Use money to try and shape behavior or boost performance. It often backfires. People become focused on what’s-in-it-for-me and conditioned to expect progressively bigger carrots.
  • Set up competitions for limited rewards — unless teamwork isn’t important. Fear of failure and losing doesn’t create energy. Find ways to meaningfully recognize and energize as many people as possible.
  • Use suggestion systems. They reward people for lobbing ideas at others to implement. They’re a product of paternalistic cultures where they reinforce traditional management control rather than partnerships.
  • Make promotions a reward. People should only be moved into larger leadership roles because they have the strengths and skills for higher levels of leadership. Using promotions as rewards puts an unhealthy focus (and competition) on position, rank, and titles.


  • Use strengths-based coaching to align strengths, passion, and organizational needs.
  • Develop the habit of reinforcing positives at home, with friends, neighbors, at social activities, and so on. Sincere recognition skills and genuine appreciation habits aren’t turned on at work and turned off when you go home (flattery and manipulation can be).
  • Foster innovation and organizational learning by recognizing good tries, pilots, and mistakes that advance organizational learning, especially if that experience is shared openly and widely for all to benefit from and build upon.
  • Lead the applause for people giving presentations to your team.
  • Recognize people in public or in front of others — IF they enjoy public recognition. Some people are turned off by it. They appreciate quiet, personal thanks or recognition.
  • Say “good morning,” “please,” and “thank you.” It’s amazing how often a lack of common courtesy is noticed and taken as not recognizing fellow human beings. One of the most neglected forms of recognition is “thanks.”
  • Use every recognition channel you can — public and private, oral, and written — to reinforce and support success, accomplishments, and progress.
  • When reviewing or adjusting financial rewards, get the people you’re compensating involved. They should provide feedback on your current approach and improvement ideas. Ideally, they would help design and own the compensation system.
  • Look closely at what is rewarded and recognized and by whom. Move management out of the paternalistic “empowerment” role of deciding who gets rewarded and recognized for what behaviors. Build an “empartnerment” culture of peer recognition.
  • Work with your partners to blend customer/partner input with your team or organization’s vision, values, purpose, and strategic imperatives. Strengthen your customer-partner chain with systems, programs, training, and your personal leadership modeling that gets customers and partners involved in giving frequent recognition and appreciation to each other.
  • Make sure there’s a good balance between rewarding and recognizing both results and improvement efforts. Some companies have “good tries” recognition practices.
  • Align people with their strengths, passions, and what needs doing. Helping people grow, expand, and take on new challenges are some of the best ways to show sincere recognition and genuine appreciation for their development efforts.
  • Keep measurements, improvement progress, and recognition highly visible. Use scoreboards, banners, bulletin boards, electronic or printed announcements, etc.
  • Balance recognizing individual efforts and team recognition.
  • Use a wide variety of constantly changing ways to recognize and appreciate contributions.
  • Aim for a Positivity Ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 corrective comment.
  • Give personal hand-written notes of thanks or congratulations (possibly mailed to his or her home).
  • Pass along positive comments from others.
  • Develop “walls of fame,” “alcoves of excellence,” or websites/blogs/posts filled with photos, videos, awards, performance/achievement charts, appreciative letters, success stories, etc.
  • Accommodate personal needs with time off, flex time, family issues, etc.
  • A small personal gift uniquely appealing to their hobby or interest.
  • Gift certificates or tickets (include spouse/family, if appropriate).
  • Get the CEO/senior leader to give him or her personal thanks/recognition and/or send a personal note.
  • Send a complimentary email or thank you message to their key senior manager and copy the individual/team.
  • Ask for their help/input with a difficult problem/issue.
  • Have him or her run the meeting.

Effective and well-delivered recognition, celebration, and appreciation inspires and energizes. But many managers underuse or misuse this powerful force.

We’re wired to look for what’s wrong and focus on that. However, many highly inspiring leaders build personal habits and cultures looking for what’s right and reinforce those behaviors. They know what gets recognized gets repeated.