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How Great Leaders Give Impactful Recognition by Focusing on Effort Over Results

Published: September 28, 2022

Last Updated: November 7, 2022

  4 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

How Great Leaders Give Impactful Recognition by Focusing on Effort Over Results

Giving impactful recognition is easy: Employees want to be recognized for what they are most proud of.

Giving regular recognition can be a challenge for many leaders. 

When we speak with organizations who are starting their recognition journey, we often hear leaders describe the following concerns and obstacles:

  • "I don't have enough time."
  • "I'm not sure what to say."
  • "Will people feel left out?"

Yet, one stands out. Leaders are often confused about when to give employees recognition.

When there is uncertainty in this area, it can lead to a common recognition trap; only recognizing employees for big, obvious achievements.

Here are a few examples:

  • A designer who receives recognition for re-branding the company website.
  • A sales representative who receives recognition for exceeding their yearly objectives.
  • A customer service agent who receives recognition for maintaining a high customer satisfaction score that quarter.

Simply put, leaders often default to giving recognition when the following happens:

  • High results
  • Outstanding output
  • Exceeding goals

This is not bad in and of itself. Of course, some recognition is better than none at all, and it's important to celebrate big wins! Nevertheless, only praising output has a few drawbacks to consider.

The problem with only praising outcomes

Two main issues arise when recognition is hyper-focused on outcomes:

  • Recognition becomes infrequent.
  • Recognition feels impersonal and generic.

First, let's discuss the issue of infrequent recognition. 

If leaders only offer recognition when employees have completed something substantial, it won't happen so often! At most, every couple of months. 

Receiving recognition once or twice a year is a great start. But it's simply not enough to have a lasting impact.

Research supports this claim. One particular study from Workforce Institute found that employees who are recognized at least once per month are 50% more engaged. Another study has shown that recognition frequency correlates with work satisfaction. The more frequent the recognition, the more satisfaction increases.

Second, recognition that focuses on outcomes alone can feel impersonal and generic.

To be clear: praising exceptional results is not the issue. The issue is when a recognition message only consists of that and fails to add extra words that are specific to the employee.

Psychologist Paul White, an expert on appreciation at work, explains this idea in his book The Vibrant Workplace

Dr. White argues that recognition programs often fail because the recognition is not personal or specific. In short, praise is too focused on productivity and outcomes. This can actually make employees feel dehumanized, like mere "productivity units" working towards delivering business goals. 

On the other hand, impactful recognition deliberately calls attention to the unique effort, skills, and steps an employee took to get to the final goal. In short, it highlights what makes the employee special.


He calls this "authentic appreciation." This type of genuine recognition is the key to building a successful recognition program and growing appreciation in a work culture.

Ultimately, as we describe in our guide on giving powerful employee recognition, people want to be appreciated for the process. This is where most of the effort goes in and, by extension, what employees are the most proud of.

Think about it like this:

  • The sales representative who exceeded their objectives. They achieved this goal because of their patience and perseverance — diligently following up and showing strong product knowledge and interpersonal skills.
  • The designer who delivered an exceptional re-design of a website. They achieved this because they spent weeks in R&D mode. They researched and drew up a plan with various iterations to understand how to differentiate their design from the competition.
  • The customer service agent with the high satisfaction score. They achieved this goal because of their patience, organization skills, and strong ability to make decisions and think on their feet quickly.

Working towards a big goal takes effort. It takes a mix of planning, execution, consistency, discipline and more.

Great recognition will always highlight that effort. It calls attention to the little steps, which likely include challenges and obstacles to overcome. 

When you bring attention to the unique skills, processes, and expertise, an employee took to get to the final goal, that makes an employee truly feel seen and valued.

Understand what employees feel most proud of

You might think you don't have that much oversight of the day-to-day as a leader. Or maybe you're not sure what your employees are most proud of or what they've worked the hardest on.

We recommend that next time you sit down with an employee at a 1:1, you take the time to ask them:

  • What recent contributions are you most proud of?
  • What do you feel you've put the most effort into recently?
  • On the way to achieving X goal, what was your most significant challenge?

You might be surprised to find that the things they are the proudest of have nothing to do with the big results and everything to do with the smaller steps that it takes to get there. Or maybe they took the initiative on a particular task you weren't even aware of. Or they overcame challenges on the route to a larger goal, and we're really proud of it. 

Once you understand what employees are the proudest of and where they feel they put the most effort, that is where you should focus your recognition. Because when you're on the same page as your employee, you can learn to give them the appreciation that will have a lasting impact.

The benefits of praising effort 

Great recognition hinges on one thing: understanding which contributions employees are most proud of. As a result, the question of “which actions should I recognize” won’t be an issue anymore.

That said, when recognition focuses on effort over the outcome, you’ll start to notice the following happen:

More frequent recognition: When you place a focus on praising effort, you naturally start to recognize the smaller wins that are happening on a weekly or monthly basis. This will make recognition more frequent, and you’ll be more likely to experience the positive impact of appreciation, like higher morale and engagement. 

Recognition will feel more meaningful: When you praise effort, recognition by default becomes more personal, and as a result, it feels more genuine and meaningful. Ultimately, it will have a greater emotional impact on the employee as they will feel genuinely valued.

Recognition will influence behaviour: By being specific in your recognition, you are providing positive reinforcement; in short, you are telling employees exactly which behaviours you value. This encourages employees to continue with the same behaviours and level of performance. 

Greater team harmony: Authentic appreciation makes people feel deeply seen and respected. This boosts feelings of trust and safety. Consequently, the climate of a team will feel more healthy. As a result, there will be less space for toxic feelings and behaviours such as resentment, passive aggression, and gossip.

Final Thoughts

Leaders and managers are busy people. We realize that not every recognition message can be perfectly crafted and inspiring. Sometimes you will only have time for a quick "good job on X," and that's OK!

But remember that too many superficial "good jobs" will not have the impact you're looking for, especially in the context of an official recognition program.

Recognizing the "behind the scenes" effort only takes a few extra minutes, and it will be well worth it. These conversations will build greater trust and, most importantly, allow leaders to give authentic appreciation.

In turn, when you focus on praising effort over outcome, you will have a greater impact on employee happiness and morale, and in extension, the health and happiness of the team and even the entire organization.

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