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  • Writer's picturejoshlevine

GREAT MONDAYS: Recognition

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

We're not against skywriting, messenger pigeons, and singing telegrams as ways to recognize employees, but if you are serious about incentivizing culture-aligned behaviors, look for a strategy that will help you get it right. Below is an excerpt from my book Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love.

There are many types of recognition companies use to encourage positive behaviors. I wanted to see if I could make sense of them all. Here’s what I found.

Dogs. Chimps. Humans. We’re a lot alike. In addition to our four-chambered heart and love of social interaction, advanced mammals share a need for positive reinforcement. Managers have known this since the very first sales associate, using recognition programs to reinforce desired behaviors. But in my time studying company culture, I noticed there are many kinds of recognition, more than even a total rewards program includes. So, I went about looking for and sorting the different types to see if I could make sense of them all. Here’s what I found.

To actively manage your company culture, look for opportunities to recognize associates in the four different styles.

1. Formal Recognition from Leadership Congratulations! You’ve done it. You’ve sold the most, coded the best, innovated the hardest. Whatever it is, you are being called out. Formal programs developed and implemented by heads of state are the most common example of recognition inside companies. In the early 2000’s I was involved in creating an innovation awards program for HP globally. We would put out a call for entries, film the judges, host a celebratory dinner, and bestow the trophies. Sometimes these programs can have monetary rewards or other gifts. Like this, formal recognition programs tend to be on a grand scale, but really, they don’t have to be. At a modest retail start-up I know, they hold a quarterly company-wide night out at the local pub and hand out tokens of appreciation to teams for great work.


  • Leadership buy-in

  • Employee buy-in

  • Broad communications

  • A committed budget

2. Formal Recognition from Peers While formal recognition from on high is valuable, it is built on the assumption that the things we get rewarded with are what motivate us. But as Daniel Pink and others have shown, that’s not the case. Not that bonuses are being refused, but people respond just as well to praise accompanied by symbols that hold zero monetary value. Take for example my friends over at Delivering Happiness. At one point they passed around the culture bacon (a pillow in the shape of bacon actually) to team members who exemplify their culture. It is then the new bacon owner’s choice who gets acknowledged next. But a “bacon@” email address for nominations works as well. I love this exactly because the trophy is so silly. The tchotchkes have little monetary value but hold a lot in the way of social capital. It proves that if they can pass around a bacon pillow to reinforce awesome choices, anyone can find a trinket and create a peer to peer recognition program.


  • Team buy-in

  • Agreement around behaviors

  • Commitment to regularly enacting the program

3. Informal Recognition from Peers Earnest praise. I see it as the most compelling way to motivate. If someone you work with is inspired to tell you how amazing your contribution to that last product was, well, that’s one of the best feelings in the world. I don’t know about you, but I never get tired of getting praised — it’s a well of rewards that never runs dry. Informal recognition from peers requires little if any forethought, and costs nothing. The usual pat on the back will do, but let’s get creative. A note left anonymously is thrilling; a hand-made gift certificate for a coffee and scone is fun; maybe even a card-stock flag praising the person with a superlative that they can fly from their cube. For those digitally inclined or with peers in other locations, every one of these can be translated nicely over email, slack, or even, gasp! By mail. There is a weakness in camp informal, though: this kind of recognition tends to be sporadic and not usually tied to a consistent set of values or behaviors. Do your best to ensure your team knows the importance of company values, why they are getting the praise, and lead by example.


  • People who know how to give praise

  • A list of behaviors we want to encourage

  • A little creativity

4. Informal Recognition from Leaders Can I buy you lunch? There isn’t a better string of words in the English language. And coming from a manager makes it that much better. Any team leader can spend a little time and money acknowledging great work choices, all the while deepening trust and rapport. Even a quick pat on the back goes a long way. These moments of recognition from leaders tend to happen less frequently than from peers, but these more discreet mentions tend to be more explicit about an outcome or pattern of decisions — it’s merely a cup of coffee if there is no subject to discuss. Managers need to look for specific instances to compliment once the latte is poured. One weakness in this quadrant is the small scale, though I think the trade-off is worth the deeper connection.


  • A leader who understands the power of one to one recognition

  • A small budget

  • A lot of willingness to set aside time for these encounters

Two additional nuances to call out between the top and the bottom of the 2x2. As we get into the informal, the challenge is encouraging it to happen without it becoming stripped of its authenticity. The best way for a manager to grow informal recognition is to watch for it to emerge and support it, as well as doing one’s best to connect it to behaviors and values. The second is about visibility, one of the upsides of public recognition. The more people see a behavior recognized, the more people will want to exhibit those choices. Informal recognition can be less visible: single peer to peer kudos tend to happen between moments. Say “great work” during meetings and in front of the group. Something like pass the bacon should be team oriented anyhow, but are there ways to expand exposure beyond the department. And for lunch with the boss, perhaps it’s the second half of that manager’s job to publicly applaud the individual so others know how they can get a free latte, too.

Whichever type of recognition you think will work for your culture, remember to be consistent and authentic. To do any of these programs well isn’t easy, but over time become a powerful lever for designing and managing your company culture.


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