Most leaders receive surprisingly little development before assuming their first supervisory roles. In fact, many get no leadership training at all until they’ve been in the executive ranks for nearly a decade—reaching, on average, age 42.
But whether you’ve had formal training or not, there’s one simple action that can dramatically increase any manager’s success in gaining the support and engagement of subordinates: recognize great work. That means calling out excellent accomplishments by your employees right away—and doing so in consistent and regular increments from the start.
We know from our own research that a handwritten note trumps an e-mail. Public recognition in a meeting or peer group makes people feel even more appreciated. And an award presented in a public setting is most effective in conveying a sense of a good job properly acknowledged.
In two separate but recent studies involving nearly 3,500 employees, from startups to Fortune 100
we found that recognition directly affects morale and engagement.
A 2014 study surveyed 2,415 employees in 10 countries and 7 languages. The data from it suggests a strong correlation between loyalty and acknowledgment. Among the 512 U.S. employees who say their company has strong recognition practices, 87% feel a strong relationship with their direct manager. That number dips to 51% among those who reported a lack of such practices at their companies. Recognition’s frequency also plays a role. For those who say they receive some form of appreciation more than once a month, 82% describe a strong bond with their bosses. When that occurrence drops to less than once a month, only 63% feel those strong ties.
A 2015 study, involving 980 respondents from companies with more than 1,000 employees, also suggests a striking connection between recognition and job satisfaction. Seven out of 10 employees who report they’ve received some form of appreciation from their supervisors say they’re happy with their jobs. Without that recognition, just 39% say they’re satisfied. Here, too, frequency plays a big role. Among employees who were called out for great work in the past month, 80% feel fulfilled at work. That number declines sharply with time: 75% satisfied (recognized in the past 1-2 months); 71% (past 3-5 months); 69% (past 6-12 months); 51% (past 1-2 years); 42% (more than 2 years ago).
The same study found that a new leader can foster an immediate boost in employee job satisfaction — by 31 percentage points — just by recognizing those who have never received any appreciation from their superiors.
Not only does recognition have a powerful effect on those being called out, it also has a significant impact on peers who see great work being rewarded. In one study, we found that just by publicly presenting some employees with a “years of service” award, managers could increase all employees’ sense that the organization cared about them.
The best settings for acknowledging achievement depend on which part of the world you’re from, as we learned in the course of research we conducted a few years ago with 300 employees in nine different countries. In Australia and the U.K., folks appreciate a public acknowledgement, but with less hoopla than most Americans like. If you’re Japanese, German, or French, chances are you would be happier with a smaller group or praise from your boss one-on-one. And in India or Mexico, no one would blush if you celebrated great work with some song and dance.
Bursting out into “Thankful For Being You” may not be your style, especially if you’re new to the job. But the impulse is probably right. The more frequently you recognize employees—as often as monthly, if possible and if warranted—the more content (and thereby engaged) they will be.