The Surprising Rewards of Simple Recognition

BY Sarah Stein // Content Marketing Copywriter

Motivating your team to achieve more

Most companies understand this basic fact: treat your employees well, and they return the favor by being productive, engaged and committed to their job. But what does “treat them well” actually mean? Employee recognition can take many different forms. A bonus. A birthday card. A keychain with your name on it. Boiled down, employee recognition means acknowledging the hard work and accomplishments of your team members. It can be a simple, or grand gesture letting them know you care, appreciate, and value their contributions to the company.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Isn’t that what a performance review is for?” 

Sure, an annual review has its benefits: an assessment of overall contribution, potential salary increase, maybe even a promotion. But formal recognition like this given by leaders and managers isn’t feasible to do on a regular basis. Elaborate, company-wide award ceremonies are also a great way to showcase the accomplishments of individuals, but they can be time-consuming to plan and are better served as a yearly event. While these efforts should be pieces in the puzzle of a larger employee recognition strategy, waiting until the end of the year to give an employee praise isn’t ideal.

According to a recent study by Cornell researchers, people that received immediate, frequent rewards for completing small tasks reported more interest and more enjoyment in their work compared with people who received delayed rewards (given out at the end of a long project). (source) The study also found that engagement and interest in the work was maintained when small, frequent rewards were given during the onset of the task, and even after the rewards were slowly phased out. 

Considering this, a wise strategy for recognition doesn’t always mean bigger, sometimes it means more often.That being said, if employees benefit from recognition more often, companies need to find simpler ways to offer it. 

Recently, our team was delighted to find a box of curated snacks in our mailbox sent by our leadership team to each employee’s home. Enclosed was a card that thanked everyone for their hard work as we transitioned from the traditional office space to a temporary remote work set-up and mentioned how we should enjoy these complimentary snacks as a token of their appreciation. These small gestures add up over time and are the mini-motivators we all need to feel respected and valued.  

Having a plan before you begin any type of recognition program is important. To start, you’ll need to understand the different ways that people are motivated. Some are motivated by external rewards such as financial gain, good grades, fame, or psychological rewards like praise. The two most common types of extrinsic motivation for employees are money and awards. Others have intrinsic motivation, an internal drive for fulfillment that feels meaningful to them as an individual. This can be tackling a personal challenge or achieving a goal that has no tangible reward attached. To strategically reward employees with simple yet impactful recognition, it’s important to appeal to both kinds of motivation.


While each employee will have different preferences, a few ideas for simple motivators include:

  1. Spot bonuses. These can be gift cards or cash, given “on the spot,” and will allow your extrinsically motivated employees to easily identify what behavior is appreciated and work towards building on those values.
  2. An extra day of PTO. Those that value work flexibility and personal time over salary and monetary rewards will be motivated to go the extra mile knowing they will have free time to relax, or accomplish personal goals. This could be on the anniversary of the day they started the job as a yearly reward, or for achieving a specific benchmark for the company.
  3. A hand-written note of gratitude. Recognizing when a team member puts in the extra effort can lead to immediate engagement and encourage the employee to continue surpassing their goals. A thoughtful note or card can bring a personal touch to recognition, and meaningfully express the employee’s value to the team.

Companies that approach recognition with a one-size-fits-all strategy are not likely to succeed at extracting the desired outcome. Every individual responds differently, not only based on their motivation type, but also based on their overall personal and professional goals. Managers who want to see results should take the time to listen to their employees and find out what makes them tick. Try setting aside 30 minutes every month to check-in on employees and see where they are struggling or where they are making marked improvement on their goals. When you have a better grasp of how your employees work successfully, you’ll be better able to understand how they will respond to recognition.

The key takeaway here can be summed up by a quote from Dr. Bob Nelson, a popular motivational speaker and employee engagement consultant: “Take time to appreciate employees and they will reciprocate in a thousand ways.” Celebrating achievements, no matter how small, can have prolonged positive impacts. It might take some time to find out what works and what doesn’t, but by putting forth the effort to try, you’ll build trust and appreciation from your team, and be mutually motivated to reach new goals.