As the year draws to a close, many organizations are looking for new ways to recognize the value their team members bring to the table. Of course, not all workplace recognition is equal. Some workplace recognition strategies can even backfire and leave employees feeling resentful.

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It’s important to align workplace recognition with your company’s values, as well as with what matters to your team.

Finding new ways to recognize team members’ contributions is important during a time of unprecedented changes to workplace norms. In our series of articles exploring how work is changing, we have highlighted management advice from business leaders and experts.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, employee engagement Christopher Littlefield suggests a new way to deliver positive employee feedback.

Reimagining workplace recognition

Although it’s nice when recognition comes with a cash bonus attached – even a small one like a gift card – Littlefield’s recognition hack won’t cost your company a thing.

He has trained thousands of leaders around the world to create workplace cultures where employees feel valued every day. Littlefield is the author of 75+ Team Building Activities for Remote Teams—Simple Ways to Build Trust, Strengthen Communication, and Laugh Together from Afar as well as an International/TEDx speaker.

In his work with people around the world, he has come to realize that most meaningful recognition isn’t about being singled out for good work. Instead, the best recognition is when we’re rewarded for the work we feel most proud of.

“Having spent over a decade both researching and training leaders in effective employee recognition, I noticed that there are limitations to our typical approach to praise. We can only recognize what we see, observe, or learn about from others and our recognition focuses on what we appreciate, which is not always what others want to be appreciated for.”

Two employees clapping happily

In other words, we assume that our colleagues want to be praised for their most visible work. This could be for meeting goals that they might have had little to do with the setting, for example, or simply being part of a team that worked on a certain project.

Littlefield has concluded that managers need to do a little less talking and a lot more listening to deliver high-quality recognition. He calls this new approach to workplace recognition reflective recognition.

What is reflective recognition?

Unlike more familiar methods of workplace recognition, reflective recognition is highly personalized to the employee.

“Reflective recognition is an inquiry-based approach where an individual or group is invited to reflect on and share what they are proud of and why,” Littlefield writes.

In the simplest possible terms, this strategy means sitting back and listening while an employee shares the targets or achievements that are the most meaningful to them.

Using reflective recognition tactics is also a great way for managers to stay connected to their direct reports.

“Reflective recognition gives you, the leader, a window into what matters most to another person while at the same time, helping employees get present to their progress and accomplishments. What’s more? When employees stop and reflect on their achievements, how they’ve tackled challenges, and how they’ve made progress, it is great for engagement, too.”

By putting your colleagues in the driver’s seat, you are not only empowering them at work but encouraging independence. This approach can even lead to more productivity, according to Littlefield.

“In other words, reflecting on even small wins can motivate employees to get more done. The best part? It is straightforward, requires no preparation, costs nothing, and makes a world of difference for both parties.”

Here are the three steps that he outlines for putting an effective reflective recognition strategy into place.

1. Invite team members to share their successes

Workplace recognition is all about feeling appreciated. Be sure that you set the tone for your reflective recognition session.

Hint: don’t send a meeting invite with the subject line “Your recent performance at work.”

Before you sit down with a team member, let them know that they have been doing great work and you want to talk in-depth about everything they’re doing right!

Littlefield points out that it’s more than OK to do this in a regular check-in or even your weekly one-on-one meeting. Just be sure not to blindside your employee. You can also take an impromptu approach, leading with an open-ended question.

A business woman on a call

“The first step is to empower your employees to share what they are proud of and why. This doesn’t need to happen as a separate, focused meeting. During your regular one-to-ones, or even when you bump into each other in the office, you could ask them a simple question.”

These simple questions should ideally invite the employee to give an honest and nuanced answer. “What are you working on that you’re most excited about?” is a lot easier to answer than “What is the plan to expand the Vandelay account next quarter?”

2. Probe for more details – while keeping it positive

Using this strategy for workplace recognition does require managers to stay on their toes. For reflective recognition to be effective, the manager needs to understand as much as possible about the employee’s achievement.

“You can help people dig into their achievements and uncover together what it took for them to do what they did,” Littlefield writes. “If they respond with ‘I don’t know,’ try following up with questions that helps them reflect on what they have done.

Whether the employee in question is shy or has been socialized to minimize their own achievements, the right question can really bring them out of their shell. Just be clear on your motive: to recognize great work!

Littlefield gives the following example:

“If they say, “I’ve been struggling with this new program for a month, but I just finally figured out X and we can finally get it off the ground. That’s exciting!” use positive probing to draw their attention to their effort and progress.”

The more follow-up questions you ask, the better you understand just how spectacular your employee’s achievement really was. In turn, they will feel like they have had their say and that their work is being appreciated at a granular level.

This is also a great way to zero in on what matters most to each individual employee.

“As they are sharing — and they will likely reveal what is most important to them — listen for the barrier they overcame, the sacrifices they made, the struggles they worked through, to do all they did.”

A manager actively listens to her team

3. Recap and reflect your team member’s success back to them

The final – and most important! – step is to reflect your employee’s success back to them. You shouldn’t repeat what they have said, but rather summarize key points or offer a simple phrase of appreciation.

“After your employee has shared, it is time to reflect on what you heard. Sometimes this can be as simple as ‘Thank you for all you have been doing, I had no idea you had worked through all that,’ or ‘Thank you for sharing, that is amazing.’”

The reflective part of reflective recognition is essential to making employees feel heard.

It’s also a good idea to make a note for yourself about your employee’s achievements. You can even set up a calendar reminder for yourself to check in again about ongoing projects that deserve your praise and attention.

Putting it all together

Although this strategy is simple on its face, it’s a surprisingly effective way to motivate your staff and give meaningful workplace recognition.

“Reflective recognition is a simple way to empower your people to share what they are proud of and why. It’s important to note that some people aren’t used to talking about what they’re proud of, so it may take some time for your team to warm up to the idea,” Littlefield writes.

Depending on your company’s culture, it could also take some time to get reflective recognition off the ground as a workplace recognition norm.

“If you build it into each of your one-on-ones, and team meetings, people will start coming ready to share and, you may just build a culture of recognition and celebration where good work is validated, and employees feel valued.”

Recognition should always be authentic, no matter how often you’re having reflective recognition sessions with your employees. If you find yourself having to “stretch” to fill in the blanks of the conversation, it could be a sign that you’re checking in a little too often.

worker on a call

“Although most great managers want to recognize their people, the challenge, which has only been made more difficult in the hybrid world, is finding meaningful things to recognize them for. This is why it is important for leaders to add a new technique to their management repertoire.”

Remember, the whole point is to make employees feel appreciated for their contributions. If reflective recognition happens at every one-on-one meeting it can lose its meaning. We hope this strategy helps you keep your direct reports engaged and deepens your managerial relationships.

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