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Teams: Rewards and recognition

Leaders who recognize the good work of a team—as a team—contribute greatly to the motivation levels and cohesion of that team.
8 min read

While looking back on the teams I’ve been a part of, I recognized something important. Leaders who recognize the good work of a team—as a team—contribute greatly to the motivation levels and cohesion of that team. And teams that are ignored or devalued expend far too much energy having to build each other up, attempting to move beyond negative emotions like frustration and resentment.

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 our leadership structure, or only one person on the team was credited for team accomplishments, 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 my teams craved was clear direction, a sense of purpose, and a little positive attention. We wanted to provide results that would make the organization more successful, but leadership needed to provide some guidance on how we could do that. Recognition of work can be one way to provide that feedback and guidance.

If you want a team committed to results, 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 lots of ideas on how you can recognize individual accomplishments. But what about moving beyond individual performance appraisals and finding ways to reward 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 their own contributions and accomplishments. Each team member needs to know that his or her performance on this team has consequences for themselves, for their team, and for the organization.

Team recognition matters to both the team and its individual members. It makes the results of the team’s work visible in the organization. It gives team members a shared pride in their efforts. It makes others excited to work with that team. 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? My own experiences provide examples to prove that it is.

Useful feedback requires the leader to pay attention to the team’s performance throughout its life cycle in light of the team’s mission and goals. I remember the boost of energy that came from hearing from the president and how it made later negative feedback easier to hear and accept. We knew our leader wasn’t there only to scold us, but would return when we hit our goals.

What’s to be rewarded?

Teams need a clear understanding of their purpose. Without a team charter, or something similar, the objectives are unclear and there’s little to reward other than team membership. I’ve been on standing committees like this. Members just add committee membership as an item on their performance appraisal form without having actually contributed or achieved any results. And the team doesn’t deserve any positive recognition.

If the team and its leadership have agreed 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. Teams should agree on what satisfactory and great results will look like for them and what it will take for them to achieve the results. They should identify milestones for larger projects. These key performance indicators and milestones are often easily identified and can be rewarded to keep the team motivated.

What about a team that has struggled in the past? They might need to be looking at what makes teams cohesive and productive. An assessment like The Five Behaviors Team Development can be very helpful here. Taking the time to uncover problems on the team and agreeing to how the team will operate is time well spent.

For example, I was on a team that worked very well together but we had an issue with accountability. We had a history of missing deadlines. So our leadership offered a reward of a day off for everyone if we met our deadlines for a season. We learned to hold ourselves and each other much more accountable for each task that would keep us on deadline. In other words, each team member made a commitment to the team to meet their individual deadlines, members had agreed to help each other meet those deadlines, and we had a clear measure of team improvement. We also knew how we were going to be recognized for our achievement.

Teams should evaluate themselves. Once individuals understand their responsibilities and agree to the team’s goals, they need to build the trust and commitment needed to be able to evaluate each other’s contributions. They need to be able to answer questions such as these: How did each member contribute to the team’s results? What were the challenges the team had to face and overcome? How did we help each other? How did the team deal with conflict? 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, and equitable amount of work, and by keeping commitments, holding others accountable, or being trustworthy. They might rate each other using a 360-degree tool or rate the team using a team assessment. Or the team might choose to do this informally, but regularly.

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 in these roles than an outsider would. They will recognize contributions that outsiders are likely to overlook. For example, they will know the value of the member who keeps the team motivated and the one who keeps the records. Team members should be responsible for rewarding good team behaviors and teamwork skills.

Supervisors and recipients of the team’s work should evaluate and recognize the team for the team’s results and achievements. They won’t know—and don’t need to know—the specifics of how the team got things done, but only that they did.

Who should do the rewarding?

The team
The best teams I’ve been on have celebrated each other and the team as a whole. This is made much easier if the team has clear performance indicators: clear goals with an agreed-upon way to measure success. The members can agree on how decisions will be made and commit to holding each other accountable for progress. The team will know when progress has been made and can be celebrated.

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.

Team members should be able to demonstrate their value to their teams and the skills they’ve developed. In fact, members can help each other identify these contributions. A quote from a teammate can provide an additional line on their next performance review or as a testimonial on their LinkedIn profile.

The team’s own culture will determine how it celebrates or rewards itself. It might be posting results where everyone can see them, or shout-outs via Teams, or doing the wave around the conference room table. These simple and regular recognitions are a sign of a high-functioning team. For large accomplishments, the team might go out after work to celebrate or take a group photo and post it on the organization’s intranet. The team might submit a request to its leaders for funds to do something special to celebrate. Both the internal recognition and the more publicly shared celebrations are motivating.

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 often 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® Team Development can help managers and team members discuss and agree upon what behaviors will be rewarded. There is even a Progress Report for this assessment that makes team progress easy to discover.

How should teams be recognized and rewarded?

The 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. Perhaps the team had agreed that everyone needed to be prepared and on time for a monthly progress update meeting. It should be easy for the team to identify who did and who didn’t meet this commitment. Doing regular appraisals of the team’s process, as well as progress, contributes to building commitment to the group, and it encourages individual accountability for behaviors and tasks.

The manager or leader recognizes the team
If you’re the manager responsible for the team, then ask the members 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. Managers should be alert for opportunities and not hesitate to offer a simple note or word of appreciation.

Recognition also shouldn’t be given only at the end of a project, but should recognize the team processes. Attend to the behaviors and tasks that help the team reach its 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. A leader who acts as the team’s champion with the leadership team or during budgeting is another example that would be noticed and motivating for their 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. Team members are more likely to be committed to team results and find it easier to hold each other accountable for achieving them. Are teamwork and collaboration part of your organization’s or your unit’s values? If so, how is that value expressed?

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.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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