Teams: Rewards and recognition

Teams: Rewards and recognition

Team high fivesWhile looking back on the teams I’ve been a part of, I recognized something important. Leaders who recognized the good work of a team—as a team—contributed greatly to the motivation levels and cohesion of that team. And teams that were ignored or devalued expended far too much energy having to build each other up, attempting to move beyond negative emotions like frustration and hurt, and looking for recognition from peers.

While I was on one team, the president cared enough to come to our office to share positive feedback he had heard about our products. His personal effort to deliver this feedback increased our pride and made us eager to hear from him again. Conversely, when I was part of a team that was recognized and valued only by units outside those in charge of our reviews and advancement, I and my colleagues experienced a lot of confusion and stress.

In neither experience did recognition, or lack thereof, have to do with compensation. What the teams I was on craved was clear direction and a little positive attention. We wanted to provide results that would make the organization more successful.

If you want a team to stay at the top of its game, you need to recognize the team.

Managers and leaders are used to finding ways to reward and recognize individual employees. They think about employee engagement and how to improve worker productivity. It’s easy to find articles with lot of ideas on how you can recognize individual accomplishments. But what about moving beyond individual performance appraisals and finding ways to rewarding a highly productive team? Or motivate a struggling one?

First everyone needs to agree that teamwork is necessary to get the desired results or to reach a shared vision. Without that agreement, some people may act in self-interest rather than for the benefit of the team. In terms of DiSC, an S-style may become exhausted supporting a team direction to which others aren’t committed, while the D will find a way to showcase only his or her own contributions and accomplishments. Each team member needs to know that his or her performance on this team has consequences.

Team recognition matters to both the team and to its individual members. It makes the work and, ultimately, the results of the team visible in the organization. It makes others excited to work with that team or welcome new members. It also makes it more likely that current members will be sought after by other teams.

Teams are made of individuals who don’t each provide the same level of skill, commitment, or energy to the team’s expected outcomes. One team member might be on several different teams, giving a different amount of time and commitment to each. Teams sometimes include employees with different managers. So is team recognition even possible? Our own experiences provide examples to prove that it is.

Recognition doesn’t even have to be much of an effort on the part of leadership. I remember the boost of energy that came from hearing from the president and how it made later feedback about missing deadlines easier to hear. It does require paying attention to the team’s performance throughout its life cycle and reviewing its mission and goals.

What’s to be rewarded?

If the team and its leadership agree upon the reason for the team’s existence and what it is responsible for, then there should already be a guide for what to reward. If you merely gather 20 people together and provide them with little vision and no guidance, then all the praise and financial rewards you offer will just amount to members doing little more than adding committee membership as an item on their performance appraisal form.

Teams should agree on what good and great results will look like for them and what it will take for them to achieve them. They should identify milestones for larger projects. So a team that hasn’t worked well together in the past might need to be recognized for improvement on an assessment like The Five Behaviors: Team Development. Another team, like one I was on, was recognized with a day off after holding each other accountable for meeting a season’s worth of deadlines.

Teams should evaluate themselves. After individuals understand their responsibilities and agree to the goals to be achieved, they need to build the trust and commitment to evaluate each other’s contributions and to evaluate team results. How did each member contribute to the team? What were the challenges the team had to face and overcome? How did the team operate internally and with other teams? Members need to agree about how they will all be evaluated. They might be rated on behaviors such as cooperativeness, active and positive participation, assistance to other members, equitable amount of work, keeping commitments, holding others accountable, being trustworthy.

On most teams, members don’t have job descriptions; instead they have temporary tasks, roles and responsibilities. The team members are more likely to recognize the contributions of each member. For example they will know the value of the member who keeps the team motivated and the one who keeps the records more than an outside observer will.

Supervisors and recipients of the team’s work should evaluate and recognize the team as a whole and their achievements. They won’t know—and don’t need to know–the specifics of how the team got things done, but that they did. Evaluations should be based on behaviors and conditions under control of the team.

Who should do the rewarding?

We did it togetherThe team
This is made much easier if the team has clear performance indicators: clear goals with an agreed upon way to measure success. They can agree on ways to hold each other accountable for progress and how decisions will be made. The team will know when they’ve made progress and can celebrate on their own. The team can decide on something as simple as going out after work to celebrate or taking a group photo and posting it on the organization’s intranet or on a bulletin board. They might make a request to their leaders for funds to do something special to celebrate.

The team has some responsibilities for holding each other accountable. Does everyone emphasize accomplishments, soft and hard; acknowledge mistakes and areas for growth, keep their focus on the team rather than themselves? Does the team need to get better at asking for what it needs to be successful? The team can reward itself for growth in these areas or recognize improvement in specific members.

Even if the team isn’t sponsored by one’s immediate manager, members should be able to demonstrate their value to the teams and skills they’ve developed. In fact, members can help each other identify these contributions. Knowledge of how others see an individual’s contribution can be helpful on their next performance review or just for building self-confidence.

The manager(s)
Before thinking of rewards and recognition, one thing managers must do is make sure they have not created any disincentives to true teamwork. If individuals are often called out for special treatment, if a person was assigned to the team simply to be the manager’s eyes and voice, or if the manager obviously places a low value on the team’s work, these can be disincentives. How the manager listens and responds to requests from the team for resources and support can motivate or demotivate a team.

A manager’s hesitancy to ask about issues of individual contribution and individual slacking can also be a disincentive. Both team leaders and managers need to check in on how the team is working together and evaluate those working relationships. Managers should reward mentoring within the team and help build its future capacity in terms of recruiting members and taking on new challenges.

If your organization divides monetary rewards among teams, coordination and cooperation among teams can suffer. Competition among teams can temporarily increase team performance, but at a longer-term cost to the organization.

Consider if teamwork is seen as a core competency individuals must demonstrate for promotion or leadership assignments. If so, then the team leader will need to be able to identify how this competency is observed and let others know that these behaviors are valued. Using a team assessment like The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team can help managers and team members discuss and agree upon what behaviors will be rewarded. There is a Progress Report for this assessment that makes progress easy to discover.

How should teams be recognized and rewarded?

Teammates about to shake handsThe team celebrates its members
As part of team-building, individuals can talk about how they prefer to be recognized and rewarded. Members will likely differ in what motivates them. The team can decide how to recognize exceptional work by any member and how to celebrate reaching milestones. Perhaps they post a thank-you card on the member’s desk. Perhaps they each write a recommendation on the person’s LinkedIn page or send a note to his or her manager.

Openly discussing an individual’s contributions makes everyone a little vulnerable and can possibly be dangerous if there is a low level of trust on the team. But if the team is cohesive and trusting, an honest discussion can be a time for both coaching and appreciation.  Doing an appraisal of the group’s progress contributes to building commitment to the group and to holding each other accountable.

The manager or leader recognizes the team
If you’re the manager responsible for the team, then ask them how they’d like to be rewarded. You don’t want to offer them something they don’t collectively value. Everyone appreciates recognition most when it’s timely, specific and personal so managers should be alert for opportunities and not hesitate to offer a simple note or word of appreciation.

Recognition also shouldn’t only be given at the end of a project, but should recognize the team processes that helped them reach their goals. The manager and team should understand what they need to accomplish to achieve a reward.

Rewards and recognition don’t have to only be monetary. Consider developmental rewards. Perhaps the team has been working outside its comfort zone and would appreciate additional training, or perhaps they’d enjoy reporting on their efforts to other teams or to senior management. Acting as the team’s champion with the leadership team or during budgeting is another example that would be noticed and motivating for most teams.

If managers do choose to recognize individual efforts, care must be given to making those rewards equitable. Remember that individuals are motivated differently, so remember individual styles to identify those who appreciate private versus public praise.

Build recognition into your values and into your calendar

Cultures that reward great work are much more likely to see great work being done than cultures that do not. Is teamwork and collaboration part of your organization’s or your unit’s values?

Recognition isn’t a task you can ignore, either as a team leader or a team player. It’s important to step back and evaluate progress. And it’s easy to forget to do when pressured by deadlines and requests. So don’t hesitate to put a reminder on your calendar. It’s another way of proving that you value your team and teamwork.

Additional reading

Use OKRs to Set Goals for Teams, Not Individuals, Harvard Business Review

Research: A Little Recognition Can Provide a Big Morale Boost, Harvard Business Review

By Kristeen Bullwinkle
Originally published on


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