Without a doubt, human capital is the most important asset of any school district. The vast majority of the budget is spent on employee compensation. Thus, it is critical that school leaders harness the full potential of their staff. Appreciation and recognition programs can be very effective tools for this purpose. In addition to the general positivity these programs bring, there are also some practical bottom-line benefits. Effective appreciation and recognition programs increase employee engagement, whilst improving alignment with the organization’s key goals. As a result of this increased engagement, productivity, performance, and quality also increase. A related benefit is that employers with these programs are more likely to retain their best staff and recruit more people like them.
Appreciation and recognition, when done well, work because they appeal to our natural human desire to feel good. When we do something that results in us feeling happy, content or valued, we want to do more of that thing. Sometimes that feeling has an internal source, such as the satisfaction of accomplishment. Sometimes, the positive feeling is due to an external source, such as praise from one’s colleagues and because we can delay gratification, the positive feeling may be immediate or may come at a later time. Regardless, we all want to have positive feelings, and we will generally act in ways that we perceive are most likely to elicit those feelings. The best approach to appreciation and recognition incorporates the unique benefits of both. Effective leaders recognize the difference between appreciation and recognition, and they leverage their benefits.
Recognition is positive feedback for the purpose of reinforcing specific behaviors or achievements a leader wants to see continue in the person recognized and begin these behaviors in those not recognized. Sometimes these behaviors are described as going above and beyond. Recognition is usually public for the purpose of enhancing the public nature of the reward for the one being recognized and the opportunity to set the expected standard for others.
Recognition programs are most effective when based on clear criteria, aligned with the key goals, values, and mission of the department, school and district. They should be applicable to all employees of the district so that all staff members are able to be recognized. Recognition should be timely, as closely related to the behavior being recognized as possible and it should be delivered in a genuine, authentic manner.
For an effective recognition program, the form of recognition must be perceived as rewarding by the staff. This can vary, so it is best to talk to your staff members to find out what types of recognition they would like. Do they want it announced at staff meetings? Do they want some type of tangible reward? Do they want flex time or some other type of working flexibility. Simply ask these questions and you’ll find out exactly what they want. It may be necessary to have options to meet the needs of employees with different preferences. Ultimately, leaders must periodically reevaluate. Recognition programs should always be evolving to stay up to date and meet changing needs of employees and the school system.
Reward and recognition programs, no matter how well designed, are not sufficient to maximize staff members’ engagement. First of all, they depend on behaviors of employees being identified but in reality most recognition worthy behaviors of employees go unnoticed. Recognition for an individual employee is conditional on them exhibiting a desired behavior and that behavior being noticed. Furthermore, resource limitations exist and not all employees will receive recognition during a given period. In addition, these programs require significant time and attention from school and district leaders. Another issue is that overdependence on external rewards can inhibit intrinsic motivation so the employee is motivated to perform purely for these personal rewards.
Appreciation is less formal and is aimed at who the employee is and what they bring to the table, not something they recently did. It is centered on their value to the organization. Appreciation is something that a leader has to build into their routine and the school culture. It is an ongoing, daily effort.
The most authentic way to appreciate your staff members is to take the time regularly to talk to them. Check in on them and ask how they’re doing. Ask what is challenging them and genuinely listen to them. Get to know what they’re doing in their role and make them feel known by their supervisor. Without provocation, tell them what you value about them and don’t forget to balance praise with feedback to help them improve. Show confidence you believe they will continue to grow in their role and talk about their future potential for roles, projects and opportunities. Talk about their career goals and how you can help them get there showing that you will go the extra mile to guide them in the right direction.
Build appreciation into your regular routine and ensure this is systematic. This may include thank you notes, newsletter shout outs or daily/weekly check ins. Plan time ahead to reflect on the thank yous and appreciations to ensure they are given regularly and consistently. Deliver appreciation in an authentic manner so that it’s perceived as genuine and does not feel contrived. For example if you treat your employee differently in front of other staff members compared to when you interact with them privately, the appreciation could be considered as insincere. If you are being ingenuine with an employee who has produced great work, they will not value and appreciate your acknowledgment, resulting in a lack of motivation in the workplace.
Appreciate your staff as they make progress along the way and accomplish key milestones.
Timely appreciation matters, when you hold off on appreciating great results until an “end of the year meeting” the staff member may forget the entire context of why they are receiving this and may not understand how impactful their actions or behaviors were. It’s important to appreciate your staff as they make progress along the way, accomplish key milestones, or present behaviors in line with the core values as they push to reach the end goal. Make sure to be specific about your staff's qualities or accomplishments. Workplace appreciation should be tailored to the individual staff member and this is more helpful for them than generic messages. By giving personal appreciation, the staff member feels valued and respected and this motivates them to work harder.
Build a culture of appreciation within the school and between staff members to strengthen peer recognition. For example if a colleague is a social media fan, give them a shout out through the school social media platform and show your appreciation. Ask colleagues how they like to be appreciated so they are engaged and involved in the program themselves. However, it is important to remember that the school leaders will take the lead on appreciation and they ultimately set the culture of appreciation. Leaders need to drive this culture and use every opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude and appreciation to employees. One thing that helps is getting together with other school leaders to discuss gratitude strategies that have and have not worked well and to exchange ideas.
The best part of the recognition and appreciation programs are that they are time and cost friendly. Anyone at any level can receive recognition and appreciation. It can be directed toward a teacher, a school nurse or an assistant principal. Cultivating a culture of recognition and appreciation comes down to small, consistent practices and making it clear that you’re interested in your employees’ growth and in them as individuals. Start this by demonstrating more recognition and appreciation to those around you and see what happens. You will be surprised at what a big difference it makes.