Three Types Of Employee Recognition That Backfire (And One That Doesn’t)

This article was published by Christina Nicholson on Fast Company

Title-only promotions aren’t always a bad idea, but they can quickly go sideways.

The saying that people quit their bosses, not their jobs, is basically a cliché, but it rings true for lots of people who’ve left positions they found demotivating, boring, or stressful. It isn’t that employers don’t realize that, though. More often, managers just struggle to recognize their team members in ways that actually do motivate and inspire them.

But doing that first requires steering clear of the recognition tactics that don’t work. These are a few of the more common ones that tend to fall flat, plus one that actually works.

Related: 8 Common Ways Companies Screw Up Employee Recognition


The oldest form of recognition in the book (after a raise or a bonus) is a promotion. When somebody on your team has done a great job and deserves to be rewarded, it’s normal to want to offer a title bump–it feels significant, formal, weighty.

But sometimes promotions can have the opposite effect. Carolin Soldo is now a business and marketing coach, but she previously worked in a bank, where she got promoted twice–and both times felt like lip service. “I received a new title, but no additional responsibilities or tasks. I did not have any additional ownership of projects, or any additional staff to manage,” Soldo recalls. “Worst of all, I didn’t receive any additional pay either. The promotion was truly a formality only.”

Title changes that don’t come tied to monetary recognition aren’t necessarily ill-advised. But if you can’t offer to tie your team member’s promotion to compensation, you need to deliver some other meaningful, positive change in their work experience. “A change in job title without any actual changes is not motivating for me, and it left me frustrated and disappointed because I felt my talents and abilities were overlooked and wasted,” says Soldo.

“People thrive when they feel needed and rewarded in meaningful names. Fancy titles are not among those things.”

Related: Managers, Here’s Why You Keep Promoting The Wrong People


Before leaving to start her own company, Leah Andrews remembers really liking her coworkers. “The products and team of people I worked with were amazing, but the culture was really bad,” she says. “Almost everyone was unhappy and felt underappreciated.”

Around the holidays, “the company refused to offer anything other than joke awards, because they didn’t want to single anyone out for appreciation,” says Andrews. “Some years we were given a token gift; other years there would be nothing.” Leadership might’ve thought that taking a fun, lighthearted approach to recognition was actually an asset–a sign of a healthy, supportive work culture that knew how to kick back. But in Andrews’s experience, that approach just seemed like an excuse not to take positive feedback seriously.

So she left to launch a custom snow-globe business. While her company does fill personal orders, Andrews says her passion is helping others say “thanks” and show their appreciation through one-of-a-kind gifts. She realizes, of course, that a snow globe might not exactly cut it as far as recognition, especially when you’re overdue for a raise and promotion. But she still believes a little thoughtfulness and sincerity can go a long way in many workplace situations where that’s often lacking.

“I still have a handwritten note from 17 years ago that I received from a manager. He didn’t need to personally hand it to me, to look like ‘the good guy.’ He just left it there on my desk for me to find,” she says. “It meant so much to me–which is obvious from the fact that I’ve kept it all these years!”


Akshay Nanavati is a former Marine who served in Iraq as a noncommissioned officer in Information Ops, in 2007–8. Nanavati’s job was to train Iraqi police officers in counterinsurgency tactics and to serve as a go-between for Iraqis and Marines to communicate with one another. It was hard work, he recalls. “We weren’t paid a lot of money and we didn’t often hear praise, yet I thrived in that environment because it was a meaningful and purposeful struggle in service of something greater than myself.”

After transitioning into the corporate world, Nanavati says he was often praised when he was able to “close” on a sales call, but it meant little to him because it didn’t recognize the effort he’d put in all day before then. As Nanavati saw it, his higher-ups only cared about the partial results these wins signified, because closing the call was just one small step in an endless grind of making cold calls each day. There was no real recognition of the bigger picture.

While managers are often told to praise small victories, Nanavati believes this can cause many to miss the wood for the trees. “Running my own business today, I still go through low moments, but by focusing on the greater impact [I’m having], I feel motivated,” he says. “I have learned to enjoy the struggle–that is what helps me rise from those low moments.”


If there’s a common thread to these three misfires, it’s that none offer the recognized employee any more autonomy. It’s like patting somebody on the head and then expecting them to go on doing the same thing. But if you really want your team members to excel, you need to follow your positive feedback with some kind of demonstration that you trust them to excel more independently.

Grant Wise, a real-estate marketing strategist, learned the hard way how important this is. “In one of my first real-estate ventures I was the youngest person in a company I co-owned. None of my co-owners valued my abilities, vision, or skills,” he says. “They didn’t think I knew anything about business, sales, or marketing”; in other words, they didn’t trust him. These days, Wise makes an effort to show his employees he trusts their judgment and ability.

So if you can’t offer a raise or bonus, just make sure that the promotions, praise, and (why not?) even the snow globes you do offer them come with greater freedom to handle their day-to-day work. As Wise puts it, “Trust and space are two of the most important things to give your employees if you want to grow your business. I simply treat them as adults and let them do their job.”

And if you get the feeling that you’re not being recognised, drop your CV with us at e-Merge


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