The Workplace

Your employees need regular recognition to stay engaged. Here are 3 ways to make it a habit.


By Jackie Kimmell, Senior Analyst

Part four in a series of the seven conversations all managers should be having with their employees

Regular recognition is a key component of employee engagement, but many managers struggle with knowing how to best recognize their employees or how to make this recognition a regular habit.

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that 82% of employed Americans don't feel like their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. And this hurts productivity—40% of them say they'd put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often.

Advisory Board research has found the same problem. In our National Engagement Surveys, we've discovered that many employees become disengaged, especially in health care, because they don't feel like they are being recognized. However, they are consistently more engaged when they feel they are receiving regular recognition—especially in a way that is considered professionally meaningful.

A now famous study at a New York hospital demonstrates just how powerful positive feedback can be in promoting change. Researchers for the study compared two tactics for getting medical staff to wash their hands: one that sought to appeal to the staff's sense of logic and social judgement by putting warning signs and cameras by hand sanitation stations and another that leveraged positive feedback. The results? After 16 weeks of tactic one, only 10% of staff consistently washed their hands, but with tactic two researchers saw 90% compliance with hand washing protocols within just four weeks.

Yet knowing how, and remembering to, deliver regular recognition can be difficult for many managers. Today's managers are often pressed for time, juggling multiple responsibilities, and, for some, positive feedback may not come naturally.

To help, we've outlined 3 creative strategies that managers can use to make employee recognition a regular habit.

To learn many more ways to make sure your employees are receiving credit for a job well done, read our manager's guide to engaging staff.

1. Use a peer compliment jar to allow staff to recognize each other

Members of a team are more likely than the manager to see outstanding work by their teammate, but they might not know how to recognize this work or may not feel comfortable calling it out. To remedy this problem, many managers have found success using a peer compliment jar. This jar is an easy way for your staff to recognize each other and can have a big impact on the relationships among members of your team.

To do it, find a small box or container and label it with a sign reading "compliments." Then, place it in a common place accompanied by slips of paper and pens.

At your next team meeting, encourage your team to write compliments and drop them into the jar whenever they have something positive to say about a team member. Then, tell them that you'll read the compliments regularly at team meetings (for instance, once a week, month, or quarter.)

At the beginning of these staff meetings (or at the end, to close them out on a positive note), have staff pass the jar around and take turns reading one compliment aloud. The exercise can be short, but doing it regularly can make a big impact.

2. Give all management staff, or make yourself, a recognition kit

While many managers might want to write a short note or card to their staff to recognize them for an achievement, they often get waylaid by the number of steps required to track down all of the necessary resources—such as the recipient's home address, a proper notecard, or the right stamp.

In recognition of this problem, St. Joseph's Hospital in Breese, Illinois, created a program in which every nurse manager was given a "mission box," or recognition kit, which had everything they needed to quickly and successfully recognize their frontline staff. The kits included notecards, envelopes, stamps, and a list of staff member's home addresses. They were also given activities and suggestions about how to recognize staff for embodying different organization values—like care, joy, respect, or competence. Nursing directors refreshed the kits every two months—updating the staff address list and replenishing supplies as needed.

Nurse managers said having all of the supplies readily available allowed them to overcome the small stumbling blocks that had previously gotten in the way of sending positive notes. Also, they reported that physically seeing the kits gave them a visual reminder to make recognition more of a regular habit.

3. Create team-wide principled recognition goals

Another way to better integrate recognition into your management routine is to set predetermined team-wide goals that staff can work toward to achieve recognition. Having a clear set of goals allows your staff to know exactly what they need to do to earn recognition, and, as a manager can help ensure you don't accidentally overlook accomplishments that should be celebrated.

So how do you set these goals? First, you'll want to choose a metric that that everyone on your team can impact, is measured frequently, and is something your team can reasonably improve. For instance, clinical teams might chose patient satisfaction (as measured by HCAHPS scores), or median patient wait time. Nonclinical teams might chose something like the percentage of co-pays collected or room turnaround time. 

Then, set a reasonable target for performance. Make sure that the goal is SMART (Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound). Communicating the chosen metric to staff is key: make sure you explain to your team why you chose the metric, how long you think it will take your team to reach the goal, and where it fits into your department's "bigger picture."

Next, decide how you'll recognize your team's achievement of the goal—you can either choose this reward yourself or involve your staff in making the decision. If you decide to have your staff decide, make a list of some possible options to vote on at your next meeting—just be sure you're comfortable with all of the options proposed.

Some good ways to recognize and reward your team could be a catered meal, a choice of snack at an upcoming meeting, the options to wear jeans on a Friday, the manager doing something goofy like wearing a costume, or a banner for the department to display on the wall. You can also set bonus rewards if the team exceeds the target or hits it faster than expected.

While your staff works to hit the goal, make sure to regularly be updating staff on progress towards the goal, with a virtual display of progress, if possible, so that the goal can stay top-of-mind.

Want more engagement tips?

These are just a few of the ways that you can work to recognize and engage staff. For many more, including quick tips and helpful measurements of possible impact, time required, and must-do checklists for each strategy, download our manager's guide to engaging staff.

Download the Guide

To help with nurse engagement in particular, view our report on the national prescription for nurse engagement, which outlines a host of strategies that organizations around the country are using to recognize and engage their frontline nursing staff.

View the Report

Make sure you look out for our next installation of the series, where we'll dig into the most common mistakes managers make in delivering performance reviews, and help you learn how to do better.

Missed one of the series? View them all here: