Not long ago we were on a flight from Las Vegas when we overheard a fascinating conversation. The flight attendant who had welcomed us on board was energetic and upbeat, a true ambassador for the airline. He was so atypical, in fact, that the two men seated behind us asked if they could send a note to corporate and get him recognized. His good nature faded as he grumbled, "Thanks, but don't bother. We have a recognition system, but you need about three billion points before you can get anything worthwhile. I have maybe two hundred and eighty thousand points, which I think is like a $50 gift certificate."

Here was an amazing employee who was persevering despite the airline's lousy job of thanking him. Did he have more to give? Maybe. Was he dissatisfied, disheartened, and even dismayed with the lack of acknowledgment for his great work--and did that make him a potential turnover risk? Without a doubt. He was motivated by recognition, but his company sucked at it.

For the past few years we've studied more than 850,000 people for our new book What Motivates Me. We found a good percent of working Americans admit they would work harder if they simply received more praise for their efforts. That's it! They weren't looking for more pay or stock options, just some specific and sincere thanks now and then.

The problem is this: The soft stuff is the hard stuff for most managers.

But there is good news. We've seen appreciation done right in some of the world's best organizations. It helps solidify a culture of constant reinforcement. After all, culture is about behaviors, plain and simple, and recognition is about reinforcing the right behaviors. That's why it is so important to your team's success.

Most managers want to create cultures where their teams perform up to capacity, but few grasp that for a culture to really take off, teammates must encourage each other on a daily basis too. The answer is in rooting for each other: having each other's backs, appreciating strengths, and recognizing what we value the most about each other--for every worker on every line, in the field, behind every desk, answering every phone call.

To know they are on the right path, workers need acknowledgment not only from you, their immediate bosses, but also from peers. Many companies in recent years have amped up the top-down type of praise, and we applaud their efforts, but manager-to-employee and peer-to-peer recognition fulfill separate human needs. Workers want to know that their bosses see their effort and truly value it. This ties in to feelings of job security, well-being, and opportunities for development. But employees also need the affirmation that their coworkers see them as trustworthy, dependable, creative and resourceful. This reinforces that they have friends at work, that they are accepted, and that others have their backs.

When we visited Zappos.com headquarters, leaders explained that most of their recognition programs are peer-to-peer. For instance, call center managers Rob Siefker and Maura Sullivan told us about SNAPS recognition, which happens in their customer loyalty teams. SNAPS stands for "Super Nifty And Positive Stuff."

Siefker said, "The lead supervisors and managers hold Zuddles [Zappos huddles] with our teams. It's quick--what's going on in the call center, are there any big-ticket items we need to discuss, big news that we need to pass down--and then at the end we do SNAPS. There's a little box in the call center and people write things that someone else did that was really cool. These are read during the Zuddles and then the person is publicly recognized on the spot. It's peer-to-peer. Then we all snap our fingers." (Sullivan and Siefker demonstrate for us and it's 1950s Greenwich Village poetry-reading cool.)

What we witnessed at Zappos is an entire ecosystem of appreciation and rooting for each other that mitigates natural infighting and jealousies. Imagine going to work in an environment like that. The work is demanding, of course, but along the way you are encouraged by not only your boss but your coworkers. There are celebrated milestones everywhere that keep you glued to your job. You want to stay and make a difference with people you like and who like you.

Take a STEP

We've seen the power of effective recognition spread throughout a culture, creating a place where employees are willing to give their all and put down roots because they know their contributions will be celebrated. A key starting point is making regular award presentations when others go above and beyond--these happen at least daily in the best teams we've studied.

When you present an award, remember our acronym STEP:

  • Tell a Story about the person's accomplishments. What did the person have to overcome, what tough customer issue did they face, etc.
  • Gather people Together. Praise is public, criticism is private. The team in attendance will learn as much or even more than the person being thanked.
  • Emphasize one of your core values. Ensure your award ceremonies recognize only results that are important to the organization.
  • Personalize the moment. What award can you present that the person will value? Where can you hold the presentation that is meaningful? What colleague could you invite to add color to the achievement?
Published on: Oct 9, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.