How do you recognize the people you work with? Whether you’re master and commander of thousands or an individual contributor on a team of three people, you can improve your workplace culture by recognizing people for their effort and good work.  

The statistics surrounding how 30% of all employees are disengaged are ubiquitous, albeit slightly dramatic. Numbers aside, it’s time to focus on HOW you recognize your coworkers. The best practice on recognition is to incorporate the 4 pillars of high-quality recognition, found in the mnemonic SAPI.



Being specific in your recognition makes the recipient feel like you actually noticed them. It’s the difference between writing “You did a nice job with the presentation,” vs. “All the effort you put into the presentation really paid off with how great the slides looked and how persuasively the content flowed.”  

Being specific goes a long way in making the recognition count. A specific recognition signals that the giver of the recognition sees the contribution we’re making and that puts us at ease. Being recognized is critical to a greater sense of belonging, which contributes to higher performing teams. Don’t miss the chance to be specific.


We can spot inauthenticity from a mile away. We prefer people be open, candid, respectful…all of those things that can be hailed under the moniker of authentic.

When you’re writing recognitions or recognizing someone in person or in front of a group, be authentic. If you’ve got a sense of humor, use it – that is if your recipient will get it. If you don’t have a good sense of humor, play to your strengths. Use your voice, your tone and your observations. If you’re not the kind of person who is lavish with your words, don’t try too hard. Be yourself. It’s important for the recipient to get an authentic message to ensure a positive reaction.


Being personal is about addressing the recipient in a personally meaningful way for them. It’s really not about you. Focus on what you know about the person you’re writing about: their personality, their workload, their path to get to where they are today, what they value, the context they work in so that you can tailor the message (and the medium) for the recipient in a personal way.  

Is the recipient an extrovert or an introvert? An extrovert might enjoy acknowledgement at a group gathering, like a team meeting and the introvert may prefer a note left on their desk. Does the recipient get recognized regularly or is this a rarity? Frequently-recognized people require even greater personalization because the “good job, Sheena!” message is worn out.

Find the best context to frame your recognition. You might consider a hand-written note or an appropriately silly gift that works for the recipient. Best-practice recognitions stands out in the mind of the recipient and standing out is all about context.


That means now! Letting someone know that you loved their use of graphics on the presentation they gave three months ago is a buzz kill (unless you’re repeating what you told them on the day they first gave the presentation). Go to the recognition platform immediately after the meeting and write the recognition while it’s fresh for both you and the recipient. If you’re busy, block out time on your calendar each week to write recognitions.

Don’t wait longer than one week. It’s bad form. It’s important to not let too much time pass between recognition. Employees who report to you should be recognized about once per month. If they’re not doing work that deserves recognition with that regularity, then you might want to ask what circumstances are keeping that from happening.

About the Author

Tim Houlihan is the founder and chief behavioral strategist of BehaviorAlchemy, LLC, a consultancy using a behavioral lens for improving the actions of workers, customers and policy makers. He co-founded Behavioral Grooves, a meetup and podcast with listeners in more than 80 countries. Previously, Tim was Vice President of Reward Systems at BI WORLDWIDE.