Recognition Habits to Transform Your Team

Liz Sheldon

Gratitude has become a buzzy word in the past few years, but even if you’ve nailed thankfulness as part of your personal self-care practice, have you considered how gratitude comes into play for your team? As Forbes notes, employee recognition is a hugely important factor when it comes to retention. In a 2016 study titled The Grateful Workplace, researchers defined three levels of workplace gratitude:

  • The first, episodic, is when an employee has an experience they respond to with gratitude—the example they use is being appreciative of a colleague who takes time out to help them learn how to do something new.
  • The second type is persistent gratitude, which is the accumulation of episodes of gratitude that lead to an overall more positive feeling for that person at work.
  • The culmination of all of this on an organizational level is called collective gratitude—when a majority of the company is experiencing persistent feelings of gratitude for each other.

But those warm and fuzzy feelings don’t come out of nowhere—they have to be fostered by those in a position to really shape the company culture. Ultimately, gratitude is like a muscle that has to be exercised, and if you can’t clearly identify ways you’re expressing gratitude for a job well done, chances are there’s room for improvement.

Here are a few ways to reshape your leadership skills to express more gratitude in 2023:

Tilt the Feedback Scales Toward the Positive

While sharing constructive criticism effectively is a necessary tool for any leader, research published in the Harvard Business Review clearly shows that “a little negative feedback goes a long way”. On the other hand, it’s hard to have too much positive feedback. One of the best ways to help an employee improve their performance is to reinforce and highlight what is working.

There’s no need to have a scarcity mindset around giving kudos—outside of the big recognition moments, like awards and promotions, sharing a few grateful words for a quick turnaround or well-done presentation is a small investment by a manager that has an outsized impact. You don’t have to be fawning or patronizing, just make a mental note to look for valid moments to share a virtual pat on the back.

Give All-Stars Public Credit

While team appreciation is essential, researchers at Harvard also identified that publicly rewarding individual team members can have what’s called a “recognition spillover effect.” In other words, the good vibes are contagious. The key is making sure this happens frequently, so there’s a regular rotation of winners.

Take a Long View

Humans have a remarkable ability to normalize changes, which means that unless you and your team pause to reflect, it can be easy to forget how much you’ve accomplished. Once you have your daily or weekly shoutouts down, think about when makes sense to set aside more space for celebrating wins. This could be a yearly offsite, a quarterly outing with your direct reports, or a low-key event like an ice cream social.

Keep track of big changes through the year and go over them as a group. Did three of your team members get promoted? That’s huge! Did you all land a record number of clients? Seeing the stats in black and white can be majorly motivating for everyone involved.

One of the best ways to help an employee improve their performance is to reinforce and highlight what *is* working.


When the time comes to go beyond verbal recognition, thoughtfulness goes a long way. Instead of sharing generic gift cards for outstanding employees or to mark the completion of a big project, take a poll or think outside the box to ideate a perk that will surprise and delight.

Have a box of chic office upgrades or handpicked snacks delivered right to their desk, or consider hosting a speaker who can help with professional development. Bring a human touch to the table, to show your team you're truly invested in not just their performance week to week, but also their job satisfaction and the overall arc of their career.

Hand-WrITE Thank You Notes

While it may feel old fashioned, penning a single-sentence thank you note on a piece of paper will always be impactful. A Slack or an email is great, but this remote-friendly option (remember the mail?) is a step up.

Follow some classic Emily Post-esque advice and keep a stack of thank you notes on your desk, so you can dash one off for a team member who helped you out in a pinch or blew you away in that meeting. Plus, this one will have added value for you, as well—writing thank you notes has proven health benefits.

Respect Your Team’s Time

The best team members are the most reliable—the ones who show up prepared, and meet their deadlines as much as possible. So show them the same respect in turn by treating your check-in times as sacred, and replying to them as quickly as you would to a client.

While this might not seem like a gratitude practice at first glance, it’s a way to show mutual respect and say thanks without doing so explicitly. Things will come up, but being reliable and communicative will let your team know you appreciate them and value their time and mental health.

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