How to Recognize Employees (Without Degrading Intrinsic Motivation) 

 February 5, 2022

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In the workplace, employees know when their actions directly contribute to company success. In fact, employees are aware that their everyday efforts are imperative to the functioning of the organization, and most are willing to give their all for the mutual benefit of a growing and thriving business.

Yet, all workers have their limits. If an employee feels that their efforts are going unappreciated, their performance will inevitably decline, and the company will begin to suffer. Managers need to recognize their employees — but they need to do so in a way that does not impair an employee’s intrinsic motivation, or the motivation a worker feels to do better for their own happiness and sense of accomplishment.

Private Gestures of Appreciation

Recognition for a job well-done does not have to be loud and ostentatious. For most workplace accomplishments, small gestures demonstrating that an employer is paying attention are enough to make an employee feel seen, appreciated and motivated to continue doing their best for their company. Some examples of simple gestures that provide the recognition most employees need include:

  • A handshake and shoulder pat with an accompanying “Well done.”
  • An email of thanks explaining the positive effects of an employee’s efforts.
  • A handwritten note with a small gift card.

Unless an accomplishment is particularly rare and impactful, a private gesture like those listed above are sufficient for celebrating an employee’s work without creating unreasonable expectations for appreciation into the future.

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Extra Responsibility

A 2016 Udemy study found that 43 percent of workers are bored by their current workload. Typically, boredom leads to disengagement, which can cause performance to plummet and lead to high staff turnover. Workers that are excelling in their current roles and maintaining high levels of performance can be rewarded with some extra responsibility, to help them garner new knowledge and skill and stay engaged.

Before loading an employee with added responsibility, managers should talk to that worker about their career goals, their bandwidth, their interests and strengths and other attributes that might impact which new tasks they would find most rewarding. Generally, it is also a good idea to offer a nominal pay increase to account for the extra work an employee is taking on, so they feel appropriately compensated for their effort.

Opportunities to Improve Knowledge and Skills

If an employee is not ready for new responsibility, they may benefit from opportunities to improve their knowledge and skill in preparation for additional obligations in the future. There are several ways employers can support employees in the acquisition of new abilities, such as:

  • Paying for relevant online courses
  • Contributing to tuition for relevant degree programs
  • Offering mentorship opportunities
  • Providing dedicated coaching
  • Allowing shadowing of other professionals
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As with extra responsibility, managers should meet with high-performing employees to discuss their goals and interests before offering such opportunities.

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Visual Examples of Progress

In business, it can be difficult for a single worker to understand how their effort is making a difference. Especially in fields where an employee’s work is more nebulous, it can be incredibly rewarding to see how one’s contributions are impacting the success of the company overall. Managers should strive to provide clear, visual examples of how an employee’s effort is resulting in progress toward a common goal. These examples might include images of customers with a finished product, graphs depicting increased sales over the previous quarter or proof of engagement through social media marketing. Managers can choose to deliver these visuals digitally to individual workers who deserve to recognize their impact or post them where everyone in the office can see and appreciate their shared work.

Teamwide Celebration

When an entire team is celebrated for their achievements, individual employees feel recognized for their contributions to the team, but their intrinsic motivation remains intact. In fact, events of team appreciation can further develop intrinsic motivation, as team members might want to do more to help the team as a whole advance and succeed. Organizations can rely on a recognition program to help them identify when teams have achieved something worthy of celebration.

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful tool that businesses need to ensure high performance from their workforce. However, strong intrinsic motivation does not negate the need for recognition and gratitude. By shifting how they show appreciation, business leaders can fulfill workers’ need for acknowledgement without damaging their strong internal drive.

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