Harness the Awesome (and Proven) Power of Recognition

Photo of David Novak recognizing a student

Think of a time when you finished a big project, won an award, or got an A on a tough test. It was a good feeling, right? And now think of a time when you were recognized by someone who mattered to you. That is a great feeling and one you remember even if it happened years ago. That’s the awesome power of recognition. 

At the Novak Leadership Institute, we believe the most effective leaders make it a priority to offer authentic, heartfelt recognition for the meaningful contributions of their colleagues. This isn’t just a feel-good complement to “real work.” These are the “soft skills” that drive hard results. 

As David Novak showed while chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, building a culture of recognition can generate impressive business results. During his tenure, the company’s market capitalization grew eightfold, and David was recognized as a top CEO. And if that isn’t enough proof of the power of recognition, Margaret Duffy, PhD, executive director of the institute, led a research study that linked recognition to positive workplace outcomes for employees.

Recognition as a driver of employee resilience and engagement

Duffy’s team surveyed more than 1,000 full-time workers ages 21-34 across a dozen industries to see how two types of respect affected the workers’ job satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement.

The research team defined two types of respect — “respectful engagement,” which describes an overall work culture of civility and respect, and “autonomous respect,” which refers to an employee’s feeling that they are respected for their specific actions (i.e., recognized for their unique contributions).

The research showed that young workers who perceived a respectful work culture reported feeling better able to overcome workplace challenges, and they had higher levels of job satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement. Young workers who perceived autonomous respect (recognition for their contributions) were even more engaged and felt a greater sense of resilience. 

How to build a culture of respect and recognition in the workplace

If recognition is the key to resilient, engaged, and loyal employees, then where do you start?

Build a culture where everyone feels respected just for being part of the team. There is a difference between a company saying that every employee is valued and respected and employees feeling valued and respected. 

The first step for a leader is to model traits such as civility, active listening, openness to new ideas (especially if they go against your views), and the ability to admit mistakes. Leaders also must hold all team members (from the C-Suite on down) accountable for respectful interactions.

What does this feel like to an employee? Based on the research, employees who experience respectful engagement are likely to observe leaders and co-workers practicing recognition (expressing appreciation and respect for others’ contributions), emphasizing employees’ good qualities, speaking in respectful ways, and listening to each other. This is a culture where everyone is open to ideas and willing to hear others’ viewpoints.

Recognize individuals for their contributions — and for being who they are. This is all about the individual. Recognizing employees’ specific contributions — and communicating how their unique skills, abilities, and strengths make those contributions possible — develops their sense of self-worth and confidence, enhancing their self-esteem and resilience. 

To build a strong recognition culture, you need to have a way to identify top performers who are walking the walk — taking the everyday actions that are driving meaningful results. Then, consider developing a unique and meaningful way to recognize them. (David used rubber chickens and cheese heads, but you don’t have to go that far. Just make sure it’s meaningful.)

What does this feel like to an employee? Employees who experience a high level of autonomous respect are likely to say their supervisors value their specific contributions, respect their ideas, and value them as individuals. They feel seen and appreciated for the unique characteristics and contributions that make them who they are.

Think back to that time you were recognized by someone special. Now, think about how your life and work would be better if everyone around you felt that same way more often. Start today by recognizing someone for something they’ve done to help you or your business. You won’t regret it.