10 No-Cost Strategies for Recognizing and Engaging Employees

By Bob Nelson

The great thing about employee recognition and engagement is that it doesn’t have to cost you anything. A national survey of thousands of employees was conducted to find out what motivates them at no cost to their employers. Here are the motivators employees said were most important to them, in order of popularity.

#1: Provide employees information they need

The top priority for 95 percent of the employees surveyed is having adequate communication and being informed, and they see it as their manager’s job to keep them updated. Employees need information to do their job well, but they also want to know about other things: what’s going on in other areas of the organization, what the company’s marketing strategies are, what new products and services are in the works, and such. There are many ways to make employees feel informed and included:

  • Provide the latest information about the employee’s job, department, and so on.

  • Show the big picture.

  • Share management decisions in a timely manner.

  • Explain pending changes and how these changes will affect your employees and the organization as a whole.

  • Give other information they desire.

#2: Support employees when they make mistakes

Nobody plans to make a mistake, but when mistakes happen, how you handle those mistakes as a manager is important. You can criticize, find fault, and place blame, embarrassing employees in front of their peers and proving that you’re the smartest one in the room, or you can take a deep breath and say something like, “That’s not the way I would have handled the situation, but what did you learn from your mistake?”

Employees already know when they’ve made a mistake; your publicly amplifying that truth isn’t going to fix the error and will only leave them focusing on what a jerk you are. Although they probably won’t make that same mistake again, if you are overly critical, you risk undermining your employees’ self-esteem and permanently losing their willingness to take calculated risks when they face the next problem situation or customer.

A better tactic when your employees make mistakes is to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to help fix the problem. Management is about developing long-term relationships with your employees, so every challenge and interaction offers a chance to engage with them and create a stronger bond.

#3: Solicit opinions and ideas, and involve employees in decisions

Simply asking your employees for their opinions shows trust and respect, and goes a long way in keeping them engaged and motivated. Employees appreciate being asked for their opinions, even if you aren’t always able to use the information they provide. Take this tip one step further and involve your employees in the decisions being made, especially those that affect them and their work.

To make sure your employees know that you sincerely want to involve and engage them, you must consistently solicit feedback from your employees. You might ultimately be responsible for the decision, but getting your employees’ input helps make your decision a better one. This basic courtesy goes a long way in helping employees feel a part of things — and it’s a slap in the face when it does not occur.

#4: Be available and get to know your employees

In today’s fast-paced world in which everyone is expected to do more work faster, personal time with one’s manager is in itself a form of recognition. Busy managers who make time for their employees and answer their questions make employees feel like a high priority, which is quite motivating.

Especially for younger employees, spending time with their managers is a valued form of validation and inspiration, and it serves the practical purpose of facilitating good communication.

#5: Support employees learning new skills and discuss their career options

Today’s employees most value learning opportunities from which they can gain skills that enhance their worth and marketability in their current jobs, as well as in future positions. Find out what your employees want to learn and how they want to grow and develop, and then give them opportunities as they arise.

Showing you care about where an employee’s career is headed shows a long-term respect for the individual. Another way to help your employees build skills is to delegate. Most managers never stop to consider that what and how they delegate can be a form of recognition. In fact, if properly used, delegation can be one of the strongest forms of recognition — an affirmation of the employee and his or her talents.

#6: Allow autonomy, increase authority, and give assignment choices

The ultimate form of recognition for many employees is to be given increased autonomy and authority to get their jobs done, whether they need to spend or allocate resources, make decisions, or manage others.

Award increased autonomy and authority to employees as a form of recognition. Autonomy and authority are privileges, not rights, and should be granted to those who have most earned them, based on past performance, not simply based on tenure or seniority. You can also reward top performers by assigning them to exciting new projects (or by letting them choose their own assignments). More responsibility tells employees you trust them and respect them and want them to grow on the job.

#7: Thank employees for doing good work and praise them in front of others

Although you can thank someone in 10 to 15 seconds, most employees report that they are never thanked for the job they do — and especially not by their managers. Systematically thank your employees when they do good work, whether it’s one-on-one in person, in the hallway, in a group meeting, on voicemail, in a written thank-you note, or via e-mail. Better yet, go out of your way to act on and amplify good news — even if it means interrupting employees to thank them for the great job they have done. By taking the time to say you noticed and appreciate their efforts, those efforts — and results — are likely to continue.

One excellent — and very inexpensive — way to recognize employees or peers is simply to give verbal feedback when you notice something you like. If your feedback is immediate and sincere, the other person will feel gratified that you’ve noticed and strive to do the same thing again.

#8: Grant flexible working hours and time off

Today’s employees value their time — and their time off. Especially as work-life boundaries get more blurry every day, giving time off can be extremely powerful: It refreshes employees and shows that you respect them as people, and not just as workers. Having flexible working hours is increasingly important to employees. Granting flex time or time off is a way of showing that you are aware of all the times they work from home or put in extra hours. It’s your chance to pay them back.

#9: Provide written and electronic praise

A simple note can go a long way in making someone feel valued. It only takes you a moment to write but is often a highlight to the recipient — and sometimes it’s even a milestone in that person’s job or career. You can take this recognition up a notch by having a letter of praise placed in the employee’s personnel file. Likewise, a simple e-mail of thanks and praise serves the same purpose. Employees also report valuing positive e-mail messages that are forwarded to them.

#10: Publicly share customer letters and recognize employees in meetings

In general, most employees value public acknowledgment, so look for opportunities to sing their praises in department or company meetings. When your employees receive a positive letter from a customer or client, encourage them to share that letter with your group. Have them read it out loud at your next staff meeting to remind everyone what you are trying to achieve together. Post it on your department bulletin board. Add a note to the letter and forward it to your manager for his or her information.