Celebrating Achievement

How to Help Your Team Feel Good

Celebrating Achievement - How to Help Your Team Feel Good

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Is it time to hang out the flags, or would a quiet "thank you" do?

It's been an intense, "full-on" day, and Aidan's co-workers are beginning to go home. Aidan is both exhausted and proud.

Exhausted because, all week, he's come in early, stayed late, and put in some serious hours. Proud because he knows he's done everything that's been asked of him, and more: he's dealt calmly and competently with every pressure and deadline that has been thrown at him.

A head pops around the door. It's Jo, a manager who Aidan works with but doesn't report to directly. "I just wanted to say, I know you've been really pushed this week, but well done. You've done a great job – thank you." She smiles before disappearing. Aidan sits back, pleased with the compliment.

But then it hits him. This is the first time that anyone's said thank you for anything, in the two years he's been with the team. And it wasn't even his boss saying it! By the time Aidan is finally done, he knows that he needs to look for a role in another section.

In this article, we'll explore the importance of acknowledging and applauding success. We'll examine some of the psychology behind reward and recognition, and we'll outline a range of ways you can celebrate achievement.

Credit Where Credit's due

We all want to feel confident and competent in our work. Much of that confidence will come from putting in the time and attention that's needed to do a good job, being open to learning and development, and having a healthy level of self awareness.

But you, as a manager, also play a powerful part in your team members' confidence. If you give "credit where credit's due," fairly and appropriately, you will reinforce what your people know to be true, and encourage them where they have doubts. However, if you rarely acknowledge "a job well done," or constantly criticize them, there's a risk that their motivation will slip away.

You might wonder why you should bother to bolster your team members' self esteem. After all, aren't they just doing what's expected of them? Sport shows us that self assured teams don't usually "rest on their laurels." Instead, they want and expect more success, and go on performing well. That pattern is just as clear in the workplace, so acknowledging and celebrating achievement is part of Building an Effective Team.


An American Psychological Association (APA) survey found that most of the companies that its respondents worked for operated some kind of recognition scheme, but that the rewards were aligned only rarely to the organization's values or strategic priorities. More than a third of the people surveyed had received no recognition in the previous year, fewer than half said that recognition was provided fairly, and only half felt valued by their employer.

These schemes had failed badly. Imagine the waste of company effort and resources, and the demoralizing effect on their employees! So, to avoid making the same mistake, consider this carefully: what would be right for your workplace?

When we think of an achievement, we tend to imagine something out of the ordinary, but it could be something as simple as quietly consistent, good work. Some examples of clearly identifiable achievements are hitting or exceeding a target, saving money, delivering a project's next milestone, or getting sign off on a whole project. But behaviors that are not so easy to measure might also deserve recognition, such as pulling together as a team to head off a crisis, or being consistently supportive to new recruits.

Similarly, what we mean by a celebration can vary, from private, low-key and free, to public and fancy, with no expense spared! Whatever you choose, be sure to tailor it to the situation.

Make It Really Count

The APA survey mentioned above also described a scenario that might be painfully familiar from our personal lives. That is, a reward or gift has no positive effect if the recipient doesn't actually want or value it, no matter how much you've spent on it! So, you'll need a deep understanding of your colleagues' preferences and personalities, and the dynamics of the team, before you hold a celebration.

For example, if someone is an introvert, he or she might not want to be made the centre of attention. Instead, a quiet, personal "thank you" could be all he needs, and he'll appreciate it more. Similarly, don't offer him a bottle of wine if he abstains, or throw an expensive away-day for the team just as company pay rates are frozen. Some people can feel offended or patronized by any overt appreciation of their work as, to them, it seems to imply surprise. There might also be wider cultural faux pas to avoid.

So, you have a minefield to pick your way through! One way to find out what your people will value is simply to ask them. You can do this informally or through an employee engagement or satisfaction survey.

Beware of the effect on yourself, too. "Going overboard" in your praise for everyday efforts might make you appear out of touch with the team's work. And too-frequent thanks become meaningless, and lose their impact. But it's worth persevering. As Bruna Martinuzzi writes, "There is a lovely Chinese quote that says, 'A bit of perfume always clings to the hand that gives roses.' When we make people feel great about themselves, paradoxically we elevate ourselves to greatness as well."

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Eight Ways to Celebrate Achievement

So, how can you acknowledge and applaud success?

1. Saying thank you. A straightforward face-to-face "thank you" or "well done" is probably the simplest way to celebrate achievement. A personal email can be effective too, while a handwritten card or note can add a valuable personal touch. Gathering the team together to say thank you can be a powerful statement, and a round of applause can be uplifting and team-building – or embarrassing!

A group thank-you email is another option, though you need to be careful that this doesn't come across as formulaic. The company newsletter, intranet or even social media can be useful channels for expressing your thanks, but, again, avoid being too personal or impersonal.

2. Money. A "thank you" can take the shape of a one-off cash bonus, or a non-cash equivalent such as a retail or experience voucher. Cash is often the most popular reward, but think very carefully about how other employees might perceive it, especially if the company has been holding down pay generally. Also, are you setting a precedent for future thank yous to be made in this way?

3. Food or flowers. Gifts such as these are a relatively inexpensive and personal way of saying thank you, but make sure you consider any dietary or allergy issues in your team.

4. A social gathering. Saying "thank you" through buying team members a meal or drink can be an effective way to reward them, and to help them celebrate together. However, beware excluding anyone who, for example, is away on vacation, has special dietary requirements, or has caregiving responsibilities that must come first. If your event is during the day, you'll need to be mindful of colleagues' deadlines and to be clear about whether you expect them to return to work afterwards.

5. A team day out. Getting the team together to do something fun can be a powerful way of celebrating, but it is also fraught with risk. Everyone will likely have a different idea of "fun," so what sort of activity might be popular across the board? You won't want anyone to have an unhappy time or to refuse to take part in the first place. This is a particular risk with physical or outdoor activities that might be impossible for some people because of ill-health or disability. As with briefer social gatherings, try to avoid excluding anyone due to their individual circumstances.

Once you've agreed on a suitable event, further questions to answer might be:

  • What's included in the day at the company's expense?
  • Is there anyone who'd find it hard to afford the other parts of the day?
  • May staff bring family members too?
  • If so, will those family members have to pay their own way?
  • Where does that leave colleagues who are single or without children?

6. Extra holiday. A suitable reward for working extra hours to complete a project could be time off. But would working late occasionally for no particular reason fall into the same category? You'd need to be careful about creating any false expectations for the future.

7. A hall of fame. An "employee of the week" notice board or intranet page can be popular and effective for a while, but it can lose impact over time. You'll risk accusations of tokenism if you choose someone rather than no one, out of some kind of obligation, whether she deserves it or not. And if you keep recognizing one "star" team member, or constantly overlook another, the scheme will fail.

8. Awards ceremony. A glitzy evening of music, trophies and speeches is an exciting way to combine social gathering, team building and networking with formal recognition and celebration. If you want to limit the expense and increase participation, get everyone involved in managing and running the event themselves, including making the food and costumes – or splash out on a hired venue and a professional events team.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Try using your and your team's imaginations to create a truly rewarding and motivating approach to celebrating achievement – and just see what happens to productivity and job satisfaction in your workplace!

Key Points

Celebrating achievement is an important part of building and maintaining an effective, self-assured team.

There are many ways to celebrate individual or team achievement. The key is that, whatever the reward, it is appropriate and fair. You therefore need to understand your team members and what motivates them.

Apply This to Your Life

  • Remember to look up from meeting your day-to-day deadlines and notice your team's achievements.
  • Make time to say thank you, and mean it.
  • And don't forget to give yourself time and space to think about and recognize your own achievements, for example through personal goal setting.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago gregemma wrote
    its always good to tell a person how good and feel enthralled with fluffiness what a great person they turned into
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Zuni,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Recognition programs should be available to everyone regardless of whether they work on a major strategic project or not. I am curious whether that organization had to come up with another means to celebrate achievement and reward employees to help re-engage and re-motivate them.

    Has anyone experienced a similar situation of de-motivating employees and what did the company do?

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago zuni wrote
    You can't underestimate how important it is to recognize employees. Getting the "formula" right can be very difficult.

    In one organization I worked for all forms of recognition were tied to achievement of results. This was very much in line with the CEO's strategy to build a high performing culture. There were two levels of recognition: the exceeds honor roll and the top 1%. Getting an exceeds rating was difficult. Those on the honor roll achieved the first tier of excellence. They received corporate recognition, an increase in their bonus and a plaque accompanied by a letter signed by the CEO. Those who received them displayed them proudly on their desks. The top 1% received a substantial increase to their bonus and attended a posh event with the executive in attendance. Recipients also received a crystal trophy to mark the occasion. After two years of the recognition program, it became apparent to employees that unless they were assigned to a major strategic project, there wasn't any hope of being recognized. The recognition program began to lose its motivational appeal.