Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

How can you give better, SMART employee recognition?

This episode explores how you can give better, SMART recognition to your team members.


In the last episode I talked about SMART goals and SMARTER goal setting. This time around I’m using that same idea to focus on recognition. A thank you note, a pat on the back, employee of the month, a spot bonus for excellent performance, those are all different kinds of recognition.

But what is recognition? You can think of employee recognition as openly acknowledging and praising employee behaviors or achievements. “Openly” means that you don’t keep your thoughts to yourself – you share them. Like you could think a team member did great on a presentation or really pulled through during yesterday’s unexpected power outage, but it’s not recognition if those thoughts aren’t put out in the open.

Think about the last time you were recognized for a job well done. It probably felt good, right? That’s because people want to feel appreciated – it’s a human desire, a human need, to be acknowledged. That acknowledgment, that recognition, shows employees that they’re valued.

And this isn’t just a fluffy, feel-good idea. Employee recognition positively relates to productivity, satisfaction, enjoyment, team culture, retention, and even loyalty and satisfaction from customers. Think about that – by recognizing your employees, their positivity can carry through to make an impact on how they interact with customers. Those are pretty powerful outcomes from something that could start off as simple as a thank you.

Unfortunately, recognition isn’t as high of a priority across organizations as it should be. In one of our studies, we sent out a survey to HR professionals about people strategies in their organizations. One question asked those professionals to select the top three people priorities at their organizations. Out of ten different options, one was “implementing or improving an employee recognition or appreciation strategy.” Guess where it ranked. If you guessed ninth place, second to last, then you’d be right! Compared to other people-based strategies, recognition isn’t a priority, it just isn’t on the radar for a lot of organizations. We’ve also found from other data that being recognized for a job well done is one of the key drivers of employee engagement, yet it also typically has lower ratings of favorability when compared to other survey items.

So where do you as a manager fit into all of this? One study indicated that 67 percent of employees—two-thirds—believe recognition from an immediate manager is the most important non-financial incentive. And in our own research, we found that about 82 percent of respondents feel that it’s important for them to receive recognition from their immediate manager. Yet in that same study of ours, we also found that 22 percent of employees—over one-fifth—rarely or never receive recognition from their immediate manager or supervisor. And 53 percent of employees—over half—want to receive more recognition from their immediate manager or supervisor.

All of this points to the conclusion that employee recognition is great in a lot of ways, yet at the same time organizations don’t give it enough credit, they don’t make it enough of a priority. And recognition from managers is especially important, with employees wanting more of it. So I’m going to spend an entire episode devoted to exploring what makes good recognition. Or in this case, what makes SMART recognition.

I’ll be going over the mystery of SMART recognition throughout this episode, spread across five sections. Each section covers a letter of the acronym S.M.A.R.T., with those letters standing for specific, meaningful, authentic, relevant, and timely.



Let’s say you’re making an important presentation to decision makers at your organization. Afterward you feel pretty good about it. Then your manager, who was in the meeting, comes up to you and says “Great job!” And that’s it.

Now, that’s a good start, because your manager is at least being positive and recognizing your performance, which not enough managers do in the first place. Even though saying “Great job!” is a good start, it could be a bit better. This is because only saying “great job” is what I call low-effort recognition. It’s a basic acknowledgment of something unique or something done well.

With that said, low-effort recognition is not the same as bad recognition. Instead of saying “Great job!”, too many managers would probably be like “Good job…but you could’ve done this better, or said that differently.” Which is like a back-handed compliment and kind of defeats the purpose of recognizing someone. That’s just bad recognition. Save those critiques for later.

Now, there’s a time and a place for low-effort recognition, just as there is for high-effort, or SMART, recognition. But here’s the thing – the more you thoughtfully recognize your team members, the less effort it will take you over time. What may seem like high-effort recognition to you now may be low effort in a few months. Recognition is a skill, and skills are similar to muscles – the more you consistently develop them, the stronger they get over time.

Not all recognition has to be high effort, has to be SMART. Otherwise that would exhaust everyone who gives and maybe even receives all that effortful recognition. But focus on giving high-effort recognition when you can. Not all the time, just when you can.

So your manager says “Great job!” and keeps walking. You appreciate the praise, but in the back of your mind you kinda wonder what it is you did so well on, in your manager’s eyes, from her perspective. Now let’s say one of your team members just made an important presentation and did a great job, and you were there. Instead of just saying “Great job!” to your team member, you could say “Great job! I was especially impressed with how you handled that transition from the theory to the application.” You could even add “A lot of people would’ve struggled to connect those topics so well, but you absolutely nailed it.” Or knocked it out of the park, or did well, or whatever language you feel comfortable with to say they did a really good job.

Can you feel the difference in those two examples? The one you received from your manager and the one you gave your team member? The second one is more specific. It starts general with great job, but then gets laser-focused on a very particular point. That point could be something the employee was struggling with, a point you’ve coached them in the past about, or just a point that pleasantly surprised you. This specificity signals to your team member that you were not only paying close attention, but that you took the time to remember and eventually share that positive feedback. That you took the time and effort to acknowledge your team member.

Not all recognition has to be specific or high effort, but when you can, devoting time to greater specificity can show your team members that you do pay attention to what they say and do, and that you care.



Meaningful recognition has value to the recipient; it’s personally meaningful to them. For example, being specific with recognition often makes it more meaningful. Not always, but typically. Like in the previous example, recognizing the skillful transition from one topic to the next could be quite meaningful if your team member had struggled with that transition in particular, or had a problem with transitions in general.

What’s meaningful, what’s valuable to each team member can be very different from one person to the next. So you can’t really have a one-size-fits-all approach to recognition. What you value is different from what I value, and if you recognize me on something that isn’t anywhere close to something that I value, then the recognition is possibly a missed opportunity. Doesn’t live up to its potential. Like if you told a team member “Great job! Your eye contact was excellent throughout the whole presentation,” yet your team member never had a problem with eye contact before, then that recognition, although well-intended, missed its mark. And it could make your team member wonder if their eye contact was actually a problem in the past.

You might be thinking right now “Well that’s great, Dan. First you tell me to be specific, but now you’re telling me that it could backfire if it’s not specific in the right way.” That’s kind of true, but it’s probably not as severe as you might think. I’m not saying you have to walk on eggshells or be scared to give recognition – that’s the exact opposite of what I’m saying. Instead, be specific when you can, but be meaningfully specific whenever those opportunities arise. They’re not gonna happen all the time – in fact it’s probably rare that you can recognize someone in a way that is both specific and meaningful to them. But when those moments align, do not hesitate.

So how do you know what’s meaningful to your team members? First you can make general assumptions about people. Your team members will probably find value in being recognized for something they put a lot of effort into. Or something they’re proud of. Or something they did that had a huge, positive impact. The more time and effort someone puts into something, the more you can safely assume that being acknowledged for those efforts will mean something.

Second, just ask them. Have a conversation. Ask your team members how they would like to be recognized. Ask them what’s meaningful to them. Or better yet, ask them when they felt most appreciated in a workplace setting, and why? The answers to those questions give you a pretty good sense of what your team members value, and you can use that knowledge when strengthening the muscles of your recognition skillset.



SMART recognition is specific and meaningful, at least when the opportunity arises. And just as being specific naturally overlaps with being meaningful, being meaningful naturally overlaps with the next idea of SMART recognition: being authentic.

To be authentic is to be genuine, to be sincere with your recognition. Whereas being meaningful is about the value the receiver gets from the recognition, being authentic is about how you give that recognition. But they also influence each other – if recognition isn’t meaningful, it likely won’t be seen as authentic, and if it isn’t authentic, that often decreases its meaningfulness.

The example I described earlier about the presentation still works here. That your specific and meaningful recognition can be seen as authentic, as genuine, if you make the experience of that recognition sincere. Like if you say the stuff about doing a great job with the transitions, but you say it while you’re looking at your cellphone, or you say it in a hurry as you rush to your next meeting, then that can hurt authenticity.

I want to emphasize that giving recognition in general is good, and if it’s specific and meaningful, then that’s great. But to be SMART recognition, it should also be authentic. And to be authentic, you often need to be present, in the moment. Your undivided attention being given to the person you’re praising.

As with the other parts of SMART recognition, there’s a balance to be struck. Not all recognition can be SMART, so you shouldn’t aim to be authentic every single time you want to acknowledge someone. You can’t be heartfelt all the time, or else that’d be exhausting – especially if your team is large.



To be specific is to be relevant to the details of a situation. And to be meaningful is to recognize something that is personally relevant to the individual you’re recognizing.

There’s also relevance to what you as a manager value, and what the organization overall values. In the last episode I mentioned that goals guide the kinds of behaviors companies want to see in employees. Same with recognition – recognition can offer guidance on the kinds of behaviors you want to see in your team members.

Giving praise is technically a tactic of reinforcement. To praise someone is to signal that their behavior is desirable, that they did something beneficial. When you notice bad behavior you don’t praise it; you try to correct it and get the person on track with what’s acceptable in your team or company. So recognition is a tool that showcases to others what kinds of behaviors are most desired by you and the company as a whole.

Where I’m going with this is that the example I’ve used in this episode – about a team member making a presentation – hasn’t really considered this aspect of relevance yet. Making good transitions in a presentation isn’t a team or company value. You probably don’t have guidelines for your team or department that say “Above all else, make good transitions.”

But it could be an example of personal or professional growth, if the employee struggled with transitions. And that starts tapping into values, into desired behaviors. That you can tell a specific, meaningful story of how your team member embodied your company’s value of pursuing growth. That is relevance, of using good or strong behaviors as examples of living your company’s culture. 



Recognition should be timely in the sense that it should be given soon after something is done. Not weeks or months later. Recognition shouldn’t wait, because recognition isn’t a bank. With a bank, you make deposits into an account, then withdraw money when you need it. Don’t save up recognition over weeks and months, only withdrawing it to mention during quarterly or annual performance reviews.

By being timely, you can better remember the details of the situation, which allows you to be more specific. And being closer to the event means that recognition is more meaningful or relevant to the individual you’re recognizing. Imagine going to a team meeting and your manager says “Great job on that sales presentation!” And you’re like “Um…the one I did two months ago?” Yeah, that’s awkward, because it’s been so long that it’s out of sight, out of mind. When you wait to recognize people that long, you only remind them how you didn’t acknowledge their efforts or success in the moment, which could make your recognition backfire.

Likewise, recognition should be timely in the sense that it’s authentically timed. Recognition means very little if it’s given out like clockwork. It can’t be something that you attempt to automate, to set up a workflow to remind you to send out recognitions during certain times. That is terribly insincere, and your team members will notice over time.



As a recap of this episode, I discussed SMART recognition. You can also think of this as thoughtful recognition. This kind of employee recognition is specific, meaningful, authentic, relevant, and timely. Not all recognition is SMART, and not all recognition has to be SMART. But aiming for more is better when you can. Like if you can’t make recognition seem authentic right now, at least aim for being specific and timely. Or if you can’t make it personally meaningful, at least make it relevant to a team or company value. So again, SMART recognition is the best-case outcome with recognition, so you shouldn’t expect to hit every part of S.M.A.R.T. right away, or that every situation will allow for SMART recognition.

One important thing I didn’t mention earlier is that as a manager, recognition doesn’t rest completely or only on your shoulders. Try to encourage team members to recognize each other using the SMART principle. This helps to develop and strengthen a culture of recognition in your team, one that hopefully spreads to other teams and makes employee recognition not just a nice idea, but something that becomes a core part of the organizational culture.

If you’re interested in learning more about employee recognition, check out a resource we have. The e-book is titled Recognition in the Workplace, and covers a variety of stats and best practices related to employee recognition.

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss hierarchy of needs.

Subscribe to

Manager Mysteries & Mishaps