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Recognition & Appreciation: How to Determine the Right Time for Each

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

If you have ever caught yourself wondering whether you should recognize or appreciate someone in a given situation, know that you are not alone in this deliberation.

Why is this so challenging?

Because oftentimes, the answer is that you should recognize and appreciate—but how can you tell when is the right time for which one?

If you are reading this and thinking that we are just playing with semantics, it is important to realize that there is a distinct difference between these two—and knowing it can be important.

This comes into play specifically when it comes to business—many leaders and companies will often use these words interchangeably, but we believe that could not be more incorrect. This rings true, especially when referring to employee engagement and satisfaction.

Appreciation vs Recognition: What is the Difference?

It is likely that we all have our own varying definitions of these two words, but for clarity’s sake, we have decided to share a distinct definition from Harvard Business Review.

HBR states, “Recognition is about giving positive feedback based on results or performance. Appreciation is about acknowledging a person’s inherent value.”

That seems concise enough. But how exactly does this play out in everyday life?

Many companies have elaborate recognition programs developed with the intent to reward their employees. They recognize longevity, hitting certain company goals, and a certain level of performance displayed at work.

Some have been established programs that have been around since the beginning of the company while others are just one-off, quick awards to recognize a unique activity.

Though recognition programs can be valuable, they also present a few issues.

First, they are often based on past performance. So, typically, by the time something happens, we end up rewarding what has already happened instead of what is happening. Further, there is only so much money and so many trophies that can be given out—that means not everyone can be recognized. And finally, there is the question of what the recipients desire—do they actually want what they are receiving as part of this reward program?

In our experience, we have heard a similar sentence one too many times from employees: “I was so embarrassed today at work by my boss,” followed by a well-meaning but painful story where they were called up in front of their peers and bragged on by their supervisor who talked about how much they did or how hard they worked.

For many of these employees, they believe that most of the others they work with are doing just as much and working just as hard—the last thing they want is to have all the attention put on them or to have it seem like they are “buddying up” to the boss.

On the other hand, we sometimes hear employees say things like, “Today marks my fifth year with the company and no one—not even my boss—even noticed.”

In one case, we asked a business owner why something like that would happen. He said, “Well, we have a program to recognize everyone on their birthday and we do recognize them for work anniversaries—but not until they have been here for 10 years. What do they want me to do, have a party for everything?”

Therein lies the challenge.

Because recognition is always about performance, it is always conditional. Tit-for-tat, quid pro quo, or something for something.

Where the Difference Between Recognition and Appreciation Matters Most

So, what happens if your team or an employee worked really hard on a project—and through no fault of their own— the project gets canceled or delayed? How do you reward their performance? Rather, can you reward their performance based on this system?

This is when we start to look at appreciation.

Appreciation is not usually about a person’s accomplishments. It is about their inherent value and the worth they bring to you by being your friend, your colleague, or a part of your company.

Appreciation, unlike recognition, is a validation process. It tells the recipient important things like, “I see you and I value you.”

This is different than recognition because it is not based on conditions or performance—I can appreciate all of my employees. And that appreciation is a big deal when it comes to forming meaningful connections.

Taking it a step further, those meaningful connections help to build real, authentic trust—and that trust is the foundation of genuine teamwork and relationships.

What does that look like in our daily lives? We have never heard an employee say something like, “I was so embarrassed by my boss today because he or she appreciated me.”

How to Recognize and Appreciate Your Employees

There is a time and place for recognition and these types of programs can be scaled for your company’s growth. But there is a time and place for appreciation, too.

Here are a few tips for proper recognition strategies:

  1. Be transparent with your employees—ask them directly how they would like to be recognized. Get to know what motivates them. Then, give them the recognition that they will perform for and remember it is a performance-based program.

  2. Know that your program does not have to be "winner takes all" approach. If you can recognize a few more people and spend less on each award, it can impact more of your team.

  3. Get to know your people. Some people are not motivated by being paraded around the office. For others, that type of recognition is everything.

Appreciation is important, too. In fact, we consider it the turbo-charger in employee engagement.

In a survey conducted by Glassdoor, 53% of people said that being appreciated by their boss more would help them stay longer at their company—and that is 53% of the 68% who said that their boss already shows them appreciation. This just goes to show that you cannot over-appreciate the people that work with you.

So how do you show appreciation? Here are a few tips that may be helpful.

  1. Listen to them—really listen. Remove all distractions and fully focus on the person in front of you! It shows them how important they are in that moment.

  2. Be specific about what you value in them. What it is that makes them unique in your view? Tell them.

  3. Be available to them and make a point of touching base regularly. Giving your time to someone else is giving the gift of your most limited and precious resource! It shows you care.

A wonderful book called Talent Magnet—authored by Mark Miller—speaks to this by saying that the best talent wants a “Better Boss.” So, how do you become a better boss?

By learning how to appreciate more of your people more of the time.

Have recognition programs that celebrate more people more of the time. Put down your phone, spreadsheet, stoplight report, or revenue project and focus on encouraging and connecting with your team. Acknowledge that your company, your team, and your success can only be attributed to the people that work with you.

If you would like more information on how to lead a winning team, how to be more engaging with your employees, or tips on how to successfully appreciate more people better and more frequently, check out our services or sign up to receive information from our weekly blog right here.

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