Formal employee recognition programs can be effective, but many formal programs only pay lip service to recognizing employee performance.
Real praise should reward effort and accomplishment, reinforce positive behaviors, build self-esteem and confidence, and boost motivation and enthusiasm.
Do your formal recognition programs accomplish all that?
I’m guessing no.
Here are four informal and powerful ways to praise your employees:
Ask for ideas. Don't just ask, "Do you have any ideas for how we can help you do your job better?" (Certainly ask that, but sometimes go farther.) Build off skills or insights they possess to use them in other ways.
Say a warehouse employee is incredibly organized. Say, "I am always impressed by how organized you are. I wish there was a way to clone you." Then ask if she has thoughts about how to streamline order processing, or ways to reduce the flow of paperwork, or how another department could more efficiently collect data.
Not only will you get great ideas, but you also recognize skill and ability in powerful way.
Ask for help. Asking another person for help is one of the sincerest ways to recognize their abilities and value. Ask employees for help and you show you respect their skills and you extend a measure of trust.
The key is to ask for help partly or totally unrelated to their function, and to make the assistance relatively personal to you. I once went to a meeting to talk about layoffs; by the time I got back to the plant word had already spread that cuts were coming. One of my employees said, "So, layoffs, huh?" I didn't have to confirm it; he knew. I said, "I have no idea what to tell our employees. What would you say?"
He thought and said, "Just tell everyone you tried. Then talk about where we go from here."
Simple? Sure, but powerful too. He later told me how much it meant to him that I had asked for his opinion and taken his advice.
Create informal leadership roles. Putting an employee in a short-term informal leadership role can make a major impact. Think how you would feel if you had a boss and she said, "We have a huge problem with a customer. If we don't take care of it we may lose them. Can you grab a few people and handle it for me?"
Informal leadership roles show you trust an employee's skills and judgment. The more important the task, the higher the implied praise and the greater the boost to their self esteem.
Team up. You and your employees are on unequal footing since you're the boss. A great way to recognize an employee's value—especially to you—is to take on a task together.
What you choose to do together doesn't have to be outside work, of course. The key is to do something as relative equals, not as boss and employee. Unequal separates, while equal elevates.
Years ago my boss said, "I'm thinking of joining Toastmasters to improve my presentation skills. Would you be interested in joining with me? It might be good for both of us, since someday you’ll be making lots of presentations." I was flattered he asked and flattered he saw me as someone who would someday be in a position to speak to groups of people.
Verbal praise is great, but at times implied praise can be even more powerful. Ask for help or ideas, put an employee in charge, drop hierarchical roles, and work together. Each is a powerful way to recognize the true value of your employees—and to show you trust them, which is the highest praise of all.