Recognition and rewards at work

Originally posted Mar 6, 2023 • More resources on influence & managing up

“What we recognize is what we reward.”

I first heard someone say this in 2013. My leadership team was deep in a heated discussion about how to get more engineers to consider mobile web when building out new features. An absolute given now, it wasn’t then.

At my organization, I was simultaneously trying to convince my fellow managers to think about how their new features might work on mobile devices and ideally, add UX improvements for the mobile experience to their roadmaps. Mobile wasn’t quite a thing yet, so this was an (extremely) uphill battle.

A senior leader was asking about all the different ways we might reinforce this new development approach on teams. Sure, our CTO could get up and say things like “mobile-first” repeatedly at our next All Hands meeting—but how could we encourage more folks to start building for mobile web over time, as the norm rather than the exception? I can’t remember who said this phrase, but it has informed my management philosophy since.

We often reinforce behaviors accidentally. When we mention someone’s impressive project in their promotion email, ask a team to demo their upcoming release at a meeting, or add a Slack emoji high-five response to a comment, we are implicitly recognizing something we like about their behavior. And even though it’s usually unintentional, we are signaling to those around us that we want to see more of that behavior.

“What we recognize is what we reward.” This sentence suddenly illuminated the reinforcement of behaviors all around me. I was inspired to brainstorm a list of actions leaders can take that reinforce what we want to see at work. What are all the public and private mediums we use to signal—intentionally or not—what kind of approaches, attitudes, or projects we value?

Brainstorm your recognition options list

Take twenty minutes and draw a table like this: columns for team and individual recognition, and rows for public and private recognition. Then fill in all of the different ways your organization recognizes people. Monetary, non-monetary, all of it!

Don’t just fill in the ways that you reward people; write down all of the ways that team or individual behaviors, attitudes, approaches, etc. are acknowledged in public and private settings.

Team Recognition Individual Recognition

Presentation at a company meeting (like demoing work)

Project launch @all announcement emails

#celebrations or #high-fives Slack channel mentions

Awards for an individual

Shoutouts in a group environment (Slack channel, company meeting, thank you in a launch email)

Assignment of a “lead” role on a project

Promotion announcement


Announcement (email or in person) within a team, celebrating team wins

Spot bonus

Non-monetary acknowledgement (words of appreciation in a 1:1; being given more autonomy)

Promotion without an announcement

Sponsoring individuals outside of the team’s work (nominating them to write a blog post or speak at a conference)

Once you’ve filled in this table with your own organization’s approach to recognition, dig into the effects of this list a little more. Ask yourself:

Identify the behaviors you want to see

If you’ve ever worked with an asshole who got a promotion, you know how infuriating it can be to see bad behavior overlooked—or even encouraged. When we acknowledge someone’s behavior in public, even if it’s in a tiny way like adding a Slack reaction to their comment, we are (often unintentionally) rewarding it for all others to see.

Humans, like most other mammals, have some hard-wired instincts to mimic each other. And since we can subconsciously pick up on what’s important to people in power when they recognize or acknowledge others, we might start to mirror that behavior, too.

So, leaders, you have a big opportunity here: if you want to encourage new approaches, new patterns of behavior, new outcomes, how might you reward that behavior by recognizing it in public?

This will take some intention, and some practice—and through the process of figuring out what new behaviors you want to see from your team, you might also notice what bad behaviors are being unintentionally reinforced.

Unintentionally rewarding behavior

I once worked at a company that had a string of six consecutive promotion announcements for infrastructure engineers to staff level. For a long period of time, nobody working in product engineering received a promotion announcement to the whole engineering organization; those promotions were announced just to their direct team members, if they got an announcement at all.

What did this communicate, however unintentionally, to the organization? That infrastructure work was more valued by leadership than product work. Engineers began to brainstorm ways to move to the infrastructure part of the organization, or to do more refactoring projects for their product features.

But when we as leaders intentionally recognize the behaviors we want to see, a lot of good can come from it. Some examples:

Recognize what someone does, not who they are

Something to keep in mind: be sure you’re drawing attention to, and recognizing, what someone does, and not who they are. If we get praise for something we do (such as paying attention to detail), we attribute our success to our own efforts, which we can control. (This also signals to others the behavior they can do, too.)

If we get praise for what we are (e.g. “clever”), we attribute success to a fixed trait that we possess, and send a signal that personality traits one may have, or not have, are the only way to be successful.

Leverage those avenues for recognition

So how did my efforts to get my colleagues to care about building for mobile play out? Through a mixture of recognizing the behavior we wanted to see (celebrating other teams’ wins at All Hands meetings by demoing how their feature rollouts worked on mobile devices), making it easier to build for mobile (we built a device lab that made it more fun to test stuff), asking our CEO and CTO to reinforce the importance of mobile-first work in a variety of communication mediums, putting up a big dashboard showing our growing mobile userbase, and, of course, scheduling a hack week to help folks dip their toe in to mobile web development… we got there.

Recognition as reward is one tool for behavior change, but it is a powerful one. You don’t have to do something as big as an official reward or celebration! Each line item in your recognition table is an opportunity for you to reinforce the behaviors you want to see.

Whether you’re inviting a team to present their work at an All Hands, sending a loaf of banana bread to a team member who really helped out their colleagues on the support team last week, or acknowledging someone’s work by making a donation in their honor, you’re signaling what behavior you’d like to see more of. Have fun with it. :)

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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