What do employees want from a leader?

Relationship and appreciation.
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What Gets Recognized Gets Repeated

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Employees are humans and humans are emotional beings. When employees are asked what they most want from their leaders, two of the top ten answers are: 1) Relationship with my leader, and 2) Appreciation for the job I do. High performing leaders across organizations know the importance of prioritizing employee recognition in a multitude of ways. They know that employee recognition increases engagement by addressing employee needs for relationship and appreciation. Additionally, they know that recognized behavior gets repeated. When leaders reinforce what right looks like, employees are more likely to continue to engage in that behavior. An added bonus is that recognized behavior gets copied by other employees. When one employee is recognized, it encourages what we want to see throughout the organization.


Recognition of employee behavior should align to the goals and values of the organization and all employees should have an awareness of the goals and values. Standards of Practice and Core Values are part of the culture of an organization and alignment with these keeps recognition from being random or individualized by leader. When standards and values are explicitly defined, aligned to goals, and clearly communicated, these definitions and associated behaviors provide a model for what everyone within the organization should be doing as they work each day. Leaders can then look for the standards and values “in action” and recognize individuals for living the standards or living the values of the organization. This increases the presence of the right behaviors among employees.


The possibilities for recognition are limited only by the imaginations of leaders. Senior leaders can implement organization-wide programs to recognize desired behavior including:

  • Above and Beyond recognition boards that call out individuals and their behaviors
  • Excellence Awards for those consistently demonstrating behaviors aligned to standards/values
  • Relationship-building activities like Lunch with the Leader

These organization-wide activities can be cascaded into divisions and departments by individual leaders and might look like:

  • Shout-outs at employee meetings
  • Thank-you notes mailed home to employee families
  • Sections of employee newsletters devoted to recognizing individuals for great work
  • Drive-by interactions, in which a leader stops by an office or department to express thanks for a specific behavior that has been noticed

Department or division recognition by leaders often morphs into peer-to-peer recognition, where employees can recognize other employees for great work and living out the standards/values. A few examples are:

  • Using a pickle jar for employees to drop in notes about employees to be read aloud at meetings
  • Sticky Notes for Stars, in which the leader passes out sticky notes at a meeting and asks employees to write notes about “star” behavior they have noticed
  • Gratitude Station, where employees can write thank-you notes to others to be mailed out or read aloud


Be Specific with Reward and Recognition

As part of the Reward and Recognize principle, we encourage the development of systems and processes to notice and recognize great work. We know that to be most effective and ensure best practices are repeated, we cannot leave recognition to chance. The key is to make sure reward and recognition is specific, if actions are to be repeated. To get started, set up a notebook to build on the processes you already have in place. Arrange tabs in the following categories and document processes as they are developed: Celebrating weekly wins, peer-to-peer recognition, individual notes of thanks, department/group celebration, and formal public recognition.

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