The S.M.A.R.T. Approach to Employee Recognition In The Workplace


Showing your employees you appreciate a job well done is a critical leadership skill. It reinforces positive behavior, builds trust and increases engagement in the workplace. However, a simple “Thank You” is often not enough…nor is giving a $25 gift card.

Here’s how you can do it right.

Let’s be clear. Employee recognition is not about rewards, “points” or financial incentives. It’s about showing your employees appreciation for a job well done. It’s about showing them that you value their hard work.

Thinking about recognition only in terms of rewards or incentives will both damage your employees’ motivation and waste your money. In psychology, this is called the “overjustification effect”. It happens when you offer an extrinsic reward for a task that was previously intrinsically motivated. After awhile, when you remove the reward, interest drops and the intrinsic motivation that was there before is now gone.

On the other hand, companies with highly effective recognition programs have a 31 per cent lower voluntary turnover than organizations with ineffective recognition programs.

Building a highly effective culture of recognition, starts with your role as a leader and is strengthened and multiplied with effective Peer-to-Peer recognition. Over the past three years, we’ve worked with psychologists and experienced people-first leaders to define a “S.M.A.R.T.” approach to employee recognition.

Five S.M.A.R.T. Employee Recognition Traits

No matter whether you’re sharing recognition verbally or in written form, formally or informally, think of these five factors:

1. Specific
Make the most out of any opportunity to recognize great work by tying your “Thank You” or “Great Work” to specific actions, behaviours or achievements. You can do this by touching on the five “W”s:

  • What behaviour or action did the person do that deserves recognition?
  • Why is it important or valuable to the company?
  • Who did it help (coworker, team, etc.)?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did the action take place?

2. Meaningful
Aligning your recognition program to your company’s core values reinforces your commitment to these values and shows your employees how these values are translated into specific behaviors and actions. In the 2018 SHRM Employee Recognition Survey, values-based recognition programs are more highly adopted (70 per cent) than recognition programs not tied to a company’s core values (30 per cent).

Pro Tip: Recognize for effort, progress and perseverance vs. ability
Dr. Carol Dweck, a renowned Stanford psychology professor, found that growth mindset companies are 47 per cent likelier to build trust and a strong sense of ownership and commitment. Recognition is a key part of growing a growth mindset company. How? Recognize for effort, progress and perseverance vs. ability.

3. Authentic
What you say is just as important as how you say it. An insincere “Thank You” is worse than not saying anything at all. Authenticity is conveyed both in the words you use, as well as your non-verbal cues, like facial expressions and body language.

Dr. Paul Ekman, a renowned psychologist in the study of emotions and facial expressions, studied micro-expressions and what it can tell you about whether someone is lying. He found that you cannot fake micro-expressions—they just “leak out.” Micro-expressions are transient, lasting 1/15 to 1/25 of a second and there are seven universal micro-expressions: sadness, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, surprise and contempt. For example, here’s the difference between a fake smile (left) and a real smile (right). Note how the real smile happens when the corners of the mouth lift, the cheeks push upwards, and the muscles around the eyes contract creating “crows feet.”

4. Regularly
For recognition to be effective, it must be frequent. Big achievements are important to be recognized, but so are small wins. More frequent feedback reduces the chance that small wins go unrecognized.

Peer-to-peer recognition is a great way to scale frequent and authentic feedback. The small actions that might have been missed in top-down (from the boss) recognition are less likely to go unnoticed by your peers. For example, SnackNation, a healthy office snack delivery company hosts “Crush it Calls” at company wide meetings every Friday where team members can call out someone they want to “Crush” (in a good way).

5. Timely
In-the-moment recognition has the biggest impact on reinforcing positive behavior. Delaying recognition for weeks or months eliminates much of the benefits of the acknowledgement. By then, you would have experienced the thought that “nobody cares.” Why would you continue to go above and beyond? Don’t miss the every day opportunities to grow an awesome company culture.

Get S.M.A.R.T. and use our proven framework to supercharge your high-performance company culture.



Jane Chung is the CEO of Perked! (, a company powering #PeopleFirst leaders with data-driven insights into your organization’s high-performance culture. She is one part entrepreneur, two parts geek and three parts adventurer.

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