Stickers vs. Words: 8 ways to give employee recognition sincerely

I’m tired of gimmicky ways to praise your team. Here’s how to commend your team for a job well done, meaningfully.

My third grade teacher Ms. Mullens had a bulletin board of star stickers in her classroom. On the board, she’d place a star sticker next to your name if you’d cleaned out your cubby, tucked in your chair, and turned in your homework on time.

I liked those star stickers. But what I appreciated even more was what Ms. Mullins wrote on my report card: “Claire is a conscientious, caring individual…

I still remember that decades later. Her words mattered, not her stickers.

When it comes to employee recognition, we seem to have forgotten this. These days, we care about the stickers — not the the words.

Rocket ship emojis in the Slack “kudos” channel, employee recognition software with “badges,” and Amazon gift cards awarded at all-hands meetings — this is the new norm for CEOs and managers who thank their employees. Now I love a perfectly-placed, underutilized emoji (and Amazon gift card!) as much as anyone. But some of the most meaningful moments of my career have not been because someone gave me a thumbs-up badge. I’ve felt most valued when I did one small thing that really helped someone I worked with, and that person let me know in a sincere way.

Employee recognition is about saying something, and meaning it. If a heart emoji or a free lunch are the only ways you say “thank you” or “good job” in your company — you’re missing the point. If you want to say something sincerely, say it with words.

We rely on stickers, gadgets and trinkets to express our gratitude because, often times, we don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it.

So I asked our leadership community of 1,000+ managers at The Watercooler what advice they had for managers who struggle to give praise in a sincere way. Here’s what they had to say:

#1: Don’t force it.

Praise is useful for encouraging your team — but it should be organic. If you find yourself struggling to come up with praise for an employee, pass on it this time around. Better to not say anything at all than to say something you don’t 100% believe is true.

#2: Share a customer review.

If you find it hard or awkward to let an employee know how they’re doing, try sharing feedback from a happy customer. One Watercooler member admitted: “Frankly, it makes praise easier to give and more genuine when it comes from customers.”

#3: Focus on recognizing individuals, not just teams.

As managers, our default is to “thank the sales team” or “thank the design team.” Yet, if applied too broadly, the benefits of that praise can stagnate. Studies have shown individual-based recognition systems tend to be more effective than team-based recognition systems (particularly in Western countries).

#4: Remove the buzzwords.

“You’re a rock star who’s killing it.” Yuck. Anytime you use a trite phrase, you erode the sincerity within your comment. Don’t depend on hyperbole to communicate your praise. Take a moment to be specific. Say what you mean.

#5: Praise people during one-on-one meetings.

There is nothing more sincere than commending someone face-to-face. They can hear your tone, read your body language, and look you in the eye. In these settings, you can also go into greater of detail why you value their work, and the impact of this person’s contributions to the company.

#6: Don’t be afraid to praise publicly, in front of everyone.

When you’re in a group, you can highlight and publicly praise individuals who have made progress since your last meeting. This helps establish what “good work” looks like to the entire team, and inspires other team members to step up. In fact, studies show that other team members benefit when a top performer is recognized (this is known as “recognition spillover effects.”)

#7: Make sure praise comes from peers , not just managers.

Encourage your team to praise one another. Getting recognition from you as a manager matters, but it’s also helpful to know peers appreciate hard work. One Watercooler member offered an example of a weekly tradition where people take a few minutes out of their day to give praise to their peers. “It’s optional… Not everybody gives and gets thank you’s every week, which keeps it from feeling forced or inauthentic.”

#8: Use your stickers sparingly.

Tangible gifts can backfire. A 2009 global survey conducted by McKinsey observed that non-cash incentives are more effective than cash incentives — including performance-based cash bonuses. And, they can offend some people who find them transactional. In this situation, it’s wise to ask people what they prefer on a individual basis. Also be wary that a “kudos” system in a digital communication channel (e.g. Slack) can come across as disingenuous for some teams. Ask your team if they’d enjoy it, or test it out before committing fully.

Not sure what specific words you should use when giving praise?

If you’re stuck on the words themselves, here are some ideas Watercooler members shared for things to say when you’re not sure how to praise people:

  • I like the way you’ve been showing up lately. I don’t care about the mistakes; you already know what they are. I appreciate how you’ve been taking accountability for them.
  • Thanks for helping me with X. I had no idea how to execute all of it, and I would have been up a creek without you.
  • You taught me something I didn’t know today.”
  • You’re making this job so much easier for me lately.”

There are, of course, more than these ways to deliver recognition for a job well done. The most important piece — no matter how you decide to deliver praise — is not to get lazy. Don’t use stickers. Use your words. And mean ‘em.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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