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Build a People-First Work Culture  Recognition and appreciation are the foundation of healthy work environments. Learn More

We all know rewards are motivating.

For example, thinking about a slice of decadent chocolate cake or a cold beer waiting for you in your fridge is a great way to push you through the end of a long workday.

But, not all rewards are created equal. And to add another layer of complexity, the “how” and “when” of reward-giving also impact motivation.

How can you make sure a reward, praise, or recognition feels genuine and motivating to your employees?

The psychology of human motivation offers fascinating answers to this question!

A Guide to Starting an Employee Recognition Program Download PDF Now

The psychology of reward-giving

A legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner was interested in studying human motivation.

In a series of famous experiments, he set up two cages with a tiny lever for a pigeon to press for a food pellet reward.

In one cage: a pigeon was offered a food pellet reward at every press. In the other cage: a frustrated pigeon was only provided with a food reward at random intervals.

What's fascinating is the pigeon that consistently got a reward soon grew bored, and stopped pushing the lever entirely. 

Meanwhile, in the other cage, a frantic pigeon continued pushing the lever at every chance it could in the hopes a pellet would come rolling out.

Bottom line: These animals we're fiercely motivated by unpredictable rewards.

The notion of "Operant Conditioning" was soon formed. This theory is often used to explain why unpredictable devices, like slot machines and your phone, are incredibly addicting.

This concept can teach us a lot about reward and recognition-giving at work.

The key: be spontaneous

Saying "thank you" and "good job" is important. But if recognition is offered at the same moment every day or week; in other words, it becomes formulaic and predictable, it will lose its emotional impact. 

But, you don't want to keep your employees entirely in the dark either. Simply put, don't deliberately withhold recognition. 

The key is to strike a healthy balance. How can you do that?

First, be sure to offer timely recognition for important milestones such as work anniversaries, birthdays, the accomplishment of important achievements.

Second, make sure that other varieties of recognition are expressed regularly, organically, and, most importantly, spontaneously. 

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Offering Genuine Employee Recognition 

Early research on human motivation suggests we are moved into action by unpredictable rewards. But, this theory only scratches the surface of human motivation. Not to mention, humans are not pigeons. 

Simply put, a reward is enjoyable for many reasons. The fact that it was spontaneous is just one of them. 

So why are some words of praise or rewards so much more meaningful than others?

Ultimately, people want to feel good about what they’re doing to achieve an external goal. In short, the process is essential, too.

Employees want to feel a sense of mastery and respect. As such, recognition should be personal and represent the unique skills and talents of the individuals. Weave these insights and these other best practices to ensure you are offering genuine, impactful recognition to your employees.

1-Recognize the person, not just the job they do

Cultivating a positive and engaging environment begins with expressing gratitude beyond a simple job performance. In short, workers should be appreciated for more than accomplishing their day-to-day responsibilities and goals.

Focus on expressing gratitude for unique insights, skills, opinions, contributions, andAsset 66 personality.

For example, you can acknowledge someone's "soft skills" and character like their contagious attitude, sense of humour, or ability to think critically. It can even mean highlighting their great taste in film, music, or even sneakers. 

When someone sees you and understands you as a person, it's a great feeling. Simply put, you "get" them. This feeling is a powerful glue that connects people, both personally and professionally.

2-Praise the process

An employee receiving recognition for finishing an assignment or project is a great start. But this type of praise can feel generic and impersonal. Most people can complete a project. What did the employee do differently? If you focus on articulating this distinction, your recognition will feel more powerful and genuine.

That said, even if you're a fast-moving company that is laser-focused on results, it's still vital to praise the process when recognizing a work accomplishment.

The process is highly personal, and a reflection of an employee's true skill and talent. Praising the process makes recognition more personal and meaningful, which will only motivate your employees to continuously live up to the same standard.

3-Everyone deserves Applauz!

Offering recognition is NOT a popularity contest.

To avoid turning it into one, make sure to recognize different types of actions, accomplishments, and, most importantly, various groups and individuals.

Don’t give recognition to the same people over and over. Everyone at work deserves Applauz!

Make sure to express gratitude to groups and individuals who occupy less visible (but critical) roles in a company as well.Asset 84i

For example, it’s easy to show appreciation for a developer that pushes a new feature, but what about the people behind the scenes? Those who stay late organizing social events, or the staff in the warehouse, or IT support that sets up all the systems that allow people actually to do their work every day.

For a culture of appreciation and gratitude to truly flourish, express gratitude to everyone, for actions big and small.

4-Think about how individual employees prefer to be appreciated

This tip is not about what you say, but how you’re saying it.

There are many ways to offer praise: publicly, privately, over email, chat, face-to-face, or in a group meeting.

Be sure to express gratitude and appreciation in a way (and via a medium) that will respect and resonate with each employee. 

5-Establish a Recognition Program

If employee recognition is important to your goals, consider rolling out an official Recognition Program.

User-friendly apps and software, like Applauz Recognition, are helping companies build strong cultures of gratitude and recognition.

Prioritizing employee recognition with an official program has been shown to have a healthy and positive impact on employee engagement and happiness.

bigstock-Excited-Diverse-Business-Team--2831306687 Things to Consider Before Offering Recognition

Once (and if) you have a Recognition Program in place, you should focus on offering recognition to employees who do more than their simple day-to-day jobs.

Although it’s important to show gratitude for everyone, employees are normally thanked for accomplishing their basic yearly goals with an anniversary gift or praise and feedback during an annual performance review.

That’s why Peer-to-Peer recognition program exists; it intended to fill in the gaps and offer much-needed spontaneous and genuine rewards and recognition outside of traditional corporate milestones.


In addition, publicly recognizing and praising employees shines a light on top-performing workers. This sets a precedent for all other employees to strive to meet the same quality standards.

To make the most of your Recognition Program, ask yourself these questions before offering recognition:

  • Did the employee or group’s effort translate into measurable improvements in key performance metrics (i.e. sales, new leads, website traffic, etc)
  • Did the employee or group in question accomplish a task, assignment, or goal with higher-than-average efficiency or quality?
  • Did this employee’s effort and actions facilitate a team objective?
  • Did this employee’s attitude or enthusiasm helped consistently boost morale?
  • Did the employee or group show outstanding dedication and motivation?
  • Did this employee use a unique specialization or skill(s) to accomplish a goal or make a difference on your team?
  • Has this employee or group been recognized recently? (If yes, consider recognizing another individual or group; everyone deserves Applauz!)

Feel free to share this checklist (or entire article) with your team, as they will be offering recognition to their peers as well!

Recognition Message Examples

If you’re not sure what to actually say to your employees when offering praise, here are some recognition message examples to get you started.

Recognizing employees for attaining specific goals or performance metrics

  • “I’d like to recognize Carlos for delivering the Happiness Assignment a week before its due date. His hard work has helped our entire team move forward with our long-term mission faster than anticipated.”
  • “I’d like to recognize the entire sales team for surpassing their sales goals for the quarter! Their hard work is turning into tangible profits for our team and company.”

Recognizing employees for their attitude or unique skill

  • “I’d like to recognize Tom for his incredible attitude. He brings a smile to everyone on the team and boosts our spirits when we need it most during these past weeks!”
  • “I’d like to recognize Yasmine for her top-notch communication skills. She has the professionalism to handle our most difficult clients. Her way words can de-escalate even the tensest situations with grace and tact.”

Recognizing employees for their general dedication and involvement

  • “I’d like to thank Matt and Nikki for organizing and coordinating an amazing company BBQ for our entire team. We had a blast and it was the best turn out yet!”
  • “I’d like to recognize Omar for showing so much dedication to the Happiness Project. He’s been coming into work early every day to work on the planning, making this project easier to execute for the rest of us.
Guide: Employee Recognition  Everything you need to know about creating a successful Employee Recognition  Program View Guide

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