Beyond ‘good job’: Unlock meaningful employee recognition with 5 questions

Think back to the last time you felt truly recognized at work. Perhaps your manager gave you a shout-out or a coworker complimented your ideas in a team meeting. It felt awesome right? 

Being noticed and appreciated by others is deeply motivating. In fact, research suggests that employees who receive regular recognition are up to 45% more likely to have positive work experiences. Recognition creates a virtuous cycle that improves engagement and inspires discretionary effort. 

Unfortunately, in many workplaces, employee recognition is either too high-level, vague, or non-existent. And, this is a missed opportunity that we shouldn’t ignore. Recognition has the potential to boost productivity and supercharge morale on a massive scale. Cultures that practice consistent recognition experience 22% fewer incidents and productivity gains of up to 9%.

It’s clear that recognition matters a lot, but it also needs to be meaningful to make an impact. So, how do you know if recognition is meaningful? 

What makes employee recognition meaningful? 

Employee recognition can range from praise to tangible rewards such as promotions or pay increases. Cultures of recognition strike a healthy balance between both. Career rewards are typically formalized processes established at the top, while praise can be expressed spontaneously by anyone. Praise is a low-barrier engagement lever that everyone should be taking advantage of. 

When expressing praise, being thoughtful is key. Generic statements like “good job” or “nice work” without elaboration are forgettable. ​​Worse, if praise becomes yet another box to check, it can end up backfiring or feeling insincere to the recipient. We can do better than that! Effective praise is authentic, specific, and regularly given. When praise is expressed in a meaningful way, its benefits last longer. 

5 questions to ask for more meaningful recognition 

1. Is it personalized to the recipient? 

Everyone has different preferences on how they like to receive both critical and positive feedback. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. For instance, public shout-outs—and being at the center of attention—may energize some while making others feel uncomfortable. We tend to give recognition in the format that we prefer ourselves, which may be different from those we work with.

It’s worth thinking through how your words and actions will land for each specific recipient. As with all feedback, it’s helpful to know your audience. Avoid recycling recognition and instead tailor the content and delivery to each individual. Certain structures or formats can be helpful as a guide, but don’t be afraid to change things up. 

If you aren’t sure how others want to be recognized, ask. It takes the guesswork out of it for you and shows them that you’re committed to expressing your gratitude regularly in your working relationship.  

Tip: During onboarding, ask new hires how they like to be recognized. Keep exploring their preferences in 1:1s and performance touchpoints. If you work on a global team, be mindful of cultural norms.     

2. Does it go more in-depth than “good job”?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying “good job,” it isn’t very specific. Real recognition goes deeper than that. Articulating the specifics of someone’s achievements benefits both the recipient and the team by highlighting valuable approaches and qualities.

If you find yourself struggling to go beyond the basics, try adding the word “because” to your shout-outs. It will help you go a bit further and offer more in-depth recognition. Consider the difference between “good job” and “good job because that account was complex and you built credibility with the customer.” It’s a big difference and one that will help shape the recipient’s future performance. Supporting praise with examples and context makes it clear to the recipient why they’re receiving it.

Tip: Add the word “because” after common phrases like “good job” or “nice work” to make sure you’re going deep enough. 

3. Are you offering appreciation or recognition? And, is it equitable? 

Recognition differs slightly from appreciation. Mike Robbins, the author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, is spot on in explaining the difference. According to Robbins, appreciationis about acknowledging a person’s inherent value. The point isn’t their accomplishments. It’s their worth as a colleague and a human being.” In contrast, employee recognition is directly related to the person’s work goals, accomplishments, and demonstrated professional growth.

The difference matters because if recognition is disproportionate, it can lead to inequities. Recognition—especially when it’s documented—can end up being used in performance reviews and promotion decisions. And, appreciation doesn’t tend to have the same outsized impact on someone’s career path. 

If one employee receives a constant trickle of appreciation without any concrete recognition of work goals and performance, it can negatively impact their growth. So, if you’re a manager, it’s your responsibility to be thoughtful about how recognition is given to your whole team. 

Tip: Stay proactive when it comes to equity by monitoring who is getting recognition on your team. Highlight the behind-the-scenes work as well as the highly-visible deliverables.  

4. Is there an opportunity to highlight a variety of voices? 

Receiving recognition from a variety of sources is invigorating. If you hear something positive about a coworker’s projects or deliverables, tell them! For example, if a customer raves about your latest new feature, share it more broadly and amplify those who worked on it. Making sure that good work gets noticed is something that all good managers have in common.  

And, never underestimate the power of peer feedback. This can also be an impactful approach for teams who may not interact directly with customers or see the fruits of their labor as readily. Departments that keep the lights on like HR, finance, and IT tend to get less attention than those working directly with customers and prospects. Peer feedback from internal sources is an opportunity to show these teams how their work is supporting the rest of the company. 

Balancing employee recognition across several sources and thinking beyond your own team can keep the experience fresh over time. It also creates connections across teams.  

Tip: When you hear something positive about someone’s work, make it a practice to share it with them.

5. How does it connect back to the culture and values?

Values tend to be something we think about at certain times, but they can be hard to remember in daily work. That’s why getting in the habit of tying recognition directly to company values is an excellent practice. Using praise as an opportunity to reinforce the company values helps connect the dots and keep the team aligned. 

When values are present in employee recognition, it builds cultural momentum. This is particularly true when leaders model this practice themselves. Witnessing specific and recurring examples helps keep the team on the same page about how the company wants to operate. It also keeps the culture on track as the organization grows and evolves. 

Tip: Consider if there may be an opportunity to create a connection to the company values when offering praise. 

Ready to recognize?

To recap, recognition needs to be meaningful to make a long-term impact. Meaningful recognition is authentic and specific. If you’re giving recognition that is personalized, in-depth, coming from a variety of sources, and tied to the company values, then you’re on the right track!  Finally, making sure that everyone on the team is receiving praise for the things they’re bringing to the table fosters engagement and ensures equity. 

Start Praising with impact today