How to Recognize Your Team

by Stephen T. Messenger

May 17, 2022

This week, we hosted an awards ceremony to recognize our team’s great work they performed during COVID operations the past year. We presented awards in a formal ceremony with accolades, short highlights, and thank yous all around. While formal recognition ceremonies are good, it makes me think about how I can be better at rewarding and recognizing my team on a regular basis.


Thankful. You must master these two words: thank you. I once had a boss that began and ended every meeting, and almost every conversation, with the words, “Thank you.” He did more than say it; he meant it. Ninety percent of your people are working hard on behalf of you. Acknowledge it every time you talk to someone.

Relevant. Recognize what you value. If you want your people to drive change, reward people for changing things. If you value productivity, recognize that. Your people notice what you reward others for and will increase that behavior when you highlight it.

Timely. You must recognize people when their great actions happen. If you wait too long, they think you’ve forgotten about them. General George Marshall once told President Roosevelt he received a medal 23 years after earning it in World War I. It certainly didn’t mean as much two decades later.

Unexpected. Again, formal ceremonies are great… and seen coming from a mile away. Imagine surprising people and praising their great work without them knowing it’s coming. Gather a small group, give unexpected praise, and watch what happens. It’s powerful.

Sincere. Your people know who you are. If you’re recognizing people and it’s not from your heart, they know. Make sure you praise people with passion and sincerity. An empty thanks is almost worse than no thanks at all.   

Varied. Reward people in different ways. If you’re always handing out the same trophy or certificate, your people get bored with your recognition. For those doing well, find out what motivates them. Then reward them with unique training opportunites, time off, monetary incentives, public recognition, hand-written notes, or a number of different ways they personally value.

Be Careful Not to…

Recognize Everyone. It’s so temping to hand out individual awards to every person, so no one feels left out. That’s what team awards are for. We all know not everyone deserves an award. Yet if everyone gets one, the highest performers feel slighted. Be judicious in awards—they mean more that way.

Recognize the Wrong People. Your people know who deserves accolades more than you do. They’re in the trenches and you’re not. If you praise people that don’t deserve it, your recognition, and you, lose credibility. Make sure you highlight the right people.

Apologize for Only Recognizing a Few. A compliment to one is not an insult to others. It’s tempting to hand out an award and then apologize that you couldn’t give one to everybody. Recognize those that deserve it. In the moment, focus your praise on that one person.

Miss Your Employees’ Need for Recognition. If you see your employees fishing for positive feedback, you’re not doing it enough. Look for signs that certain people need increased recognition, and then do it!

The best leaders recognize early and often. You can never say thank you enough, hand out too many awards, or over-highlight your people. Napoleon once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” You have the authority, and “ribbons,” to recognize your team—do so boldly and often!

Lead well!

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