Karl Wiegers
Jul 14 · 6 min read

When I managed a small software group long ago I initiated a simple (and slightly corny) recognition program. When someone reached a minor milestone or helped someone else solve a problem, I gave him a package of M&M candies with a tag attached expressing my congratulations or thanks. Larger achievements generated bigger bags of M&Ms or something more substantial. It wasn’t much, but it was more than we were used to.

The chocolate always disappeared immediately, but several people put the message tags up around their desks. To them, the important thing was the words indicating that their manager noticed and valued the progress. They enjoyed — and appreciated — the recognition of even small achievements.

We also gave such micro-recognition awards to people outside the group who helped us in some way. It brought smiles to their faces and goodwill to our relationships. M&Ms worked with our team; other social recognition techniques might work better for yours.

However you choose to do it, appropriate praising and commendation helps to build the culture of teamwork and achievement we all want. Recognition can motivate your team members to do an even better job in the future, since they know you appreciate their efforts. We all enjoy compliments from team leaders, senior managers, customers, and their professional colleagues.

Recognition and reward activities are a visible sign of an organization’s culture. If managers believe employees are lucky just to have jobs, they likely won’t offer even small gestures of appreciation. However, in a marketplace with competitive hiring and high staff turnover, an effective recognition program can help retain talented team members. M&Ms won’t make up for low salaries or lousy working conditions, but simple recognition is a step in the right direction.

Recognition Recommendations

Praise for a job well done should be timely, direct, personal, and specific. Don’t wait until performance evaluation time to deliver some positive feedback. People often feel awkward when they receive a compliment, but they appreciate that someone took the trouble to pass it along. Recognition says, “I appreciate your effort,” “Congratulations on your achievement,” or simply, “I noticed what you did.”

Tailor the reinforcement you offer to be significant to the recipients. Ask your team members what kinds of recognition are important to them. Do they prefer a public announcement at a team meeting, or is a private meeting more comfortable? Should recognition come just from a first-line manager or team leader, or should senior managers also participate? Following are some ideas to express appreciation and help grow a healthy culture.

R+. Spend a few moments at team meetings to give everyone a chance to pass along some positive reinforcement (“R+”) to others. Did a coworker help you solve a problem this week? Did someone take some action out of the ordinary that helped the team? Say thanks! The group might be uncomfortable when you first try this, but they should warm to the idea over time. If team members are so isolated from each other that no one ever has any R+ to pass along, you might have some issues of team dynamics to address.

Traveling trophy. You can use a trophy that migrates from project to project to acknowledge team achievements. In keeping with the M&M motif, we used a framed three-pound M&M bag (empty, alas) as a traveling trophy. Recipients displayed the prize in their office area until another project reached a milestone worthy of recognition. The trophy was ceremoniously handed from one team to the next in our group meeting. Be sure to keep the trophy traveling periodically, or its significance becomes lost.

Bread and circuses. Food and entertainment are good ways to recognize contributions or a special achievement. Taking the team to a celebration luncheon when they reach a major milestone can be fun. A restaurant gift certificate lets an individual recipient celebrate privately with family or friends.

My entire team once pitched in on short notice to participate in interviews during an intense period of hiring new group members. I gave each of them a pair of movie passes as a symbol of how much I appreciated their time and teamwork. It was a small gesture but a sincere way of saying, “Thanks for the help, gang.” I could have given them each twenty dollars instead, but a tangible gift often means more than the equivalent in pocket cash.

Interim milestones. Recognize people for attaining minor milestones, as well as when they complete a big project. Interim pats on the back help provide the incentive to keep pushing ahead. It says, “Congratulations on making progress toward our goals.”

Don’t delay. As a manager, actively look for recognition opportunities and seize the moment. Waiting too long to provide recognition dilutes its meaning. “Oh, so you finally noticed what I did,” is a typical unspoken reaction to a belated recognition effort. Not so motivating.

Share the wealth. Try to distribute recognition awards equitably to your team members. The scale and frequency need not be the same for everyone, as individuals and their contributions are different. It’s demoralizing for an employee to see the same coworkers being recognized repeatedly without anyone noticing her own achievements, though.

Remember the outsiders. It’s amazing how much future cooperation you can secure with a simple gesture of appreciation to someone outside your group. We thanked our the customer representatives on our software projects by taking them to lunch, bestowing certificates to hang on the wall, and giving restaurant gift cards to those who shouldered the most responsibility. One key customer even reciprocated, throwing a lunch bash for the business analysts who steered his project through an effective requirements process. Such customer-developer interactions help to grow a culture of constructive collaboration.

Incentives or Rewards?

The skillful manager will use recognition and rewards to reinforce desired behaviors, not as incentives to strive for specific goals. Dangling extra cash as a carrot in front of a software team to induce them to work faster-harder-longer can backfire. If they don’t meet the ambitious goals, how do you keep them motivated? You can withdraw the incentives, thereby destroying morale. Or, you can renew them toward a revised objective, which shows that falling short of management’s outrageous goals is just as meritorious as achieving them. Everyone loses either way.

Rewarding a Job Well Done

Design a reward program that matches your organization’s culture and means something to your team members. Motivate your team through frequent interim recognition activities, and reward them for a job well done when the job really is done. You can also reward people for taking intelligent risks, even if a great notion or great effort doesn’t pay off. Public rewards demonstrate to the rest of the group those behaviors you feel are desirable.

If you make a verbal commitment to someone for a reward, follow through on it. Forgetting that promise leads to a credibility gap. And be sure to reward the right people for the right reasons. If you aren’t sure who made key contributions to a successful project, find out before presenting any rewards. It’s infuriating to seeing someone else receive praise — or more — for your own work.

Rewards can be monetary or tangible. Talk to your people to understand the types of rewards they feel are significant. The corporate culture could have some influence here. It might be easier to give someone a substantial, but non-cash, award, such as a trip to a special conference or trade show. Some companies reward employees with frequent flyer miles or extra vacation time. If someone does an exceptional job on a project, he might appreciate a mini-sabbatical, a few weeks to work on whatever he likes.

Another kind of reward is the opportunity to work on an exciting new project. In some groups, only the old hands have the skills and knowledge to keep the legacy systems alive. Less experienced people may be assigned to projects involving newer technology, which are more fun than maintaining archaic applications. Look for ways to stimulate your best workers with new learning opportunities and project challenges.

Recognition Enhances Stability

As two-way corporate loyalty becomes obsolete, managers must be increasingly creative at building an environment that attracts and retains talented professionals. Spending a few bucks to say “thank you” and “congratulations” is cheaper than replacing disgruntled employees who leave for someplace where they might feel more appreciated. Make a thoughtful reward and recognition program a part of your management plan.

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Karl Wiegers

Written by

I’ve written on software development and management, consulting, self-help, chemistry, military history, and a mystery novel. More info at karlwiegers.com.

The Startup

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