During a coaching session my client, a young expatriated European woman new to the US work environment, was expressing how baffled she felt after her boss publicly and frequently praised her work, to the point that sometimes she was embarrassed.  However,  at her annual performance review, she didn’t get the promotion nor the salary raise she was expecting for doing such a “good job.”

In the US, people are used to positive reinforcement since childhood. Parents, teachers, and adults are always encouraging even the most insignificant actions. When a child ties his shoes, eats her food at lunch, or finishes her homework, we empower them with an expressive “good job!”

In many countries, praise or even simple recognition is unusual and only delivered when expectations are surpassed by an exceptionally good performance.

Easy recognition could be perceived as superficial and manipulative, hence people are raised with little and rigid feedback and with the responsibility to do their work to the best of their abilities with no expectations in return.

In the case of my client, it is clear that both, she and her supervisor made a faux pas in cultural agility. They disregarded the substantial variations in the way an employee is recognized across different countries. Adding to her confusion was the fact of receiving many expressions of recognition and very little feedback.

Since the time when behavioral scientists established the effects of recognition in areas like talent retention, employee satisfaction, and engagement, happiness, and well-being in the workplace, etc., companies and managers haven’t stopped generating innovative ways to motivate and inspire their employees through recognition. Its been proven that the culture and climate of an organization can change by focusing on the positivity that comes from establishing employee connections based on respect, and appreciation.

We all have experienced that when we feel recognized, we put our best work forward. For many, there is nothing more inspiring and motivating than having ownership in a project, even a small one, while knowing that our work is adding value to the final outcome.

However, there is a difference between showing recognition and appreciation. Many times we misinterpret our intentions by leaning too much on recognition. Often than not, an honest “thank you” will better express our sense of gratitude towards an employee that has gone beyond her job description. Probably it will not be a great motivator over time, but when the feeling is authentic and sincere it will go much further than a worthless pat on the back, that could create false expectations and later disappointment.  

Gratitude is a universal gesture. A human connector with common and unequivocal interpretation, and no territorial or cultural borders. We never can go wrong by being thankful.

Nowadays, employees expect meaningful and genuine recognition from their leaders, by giving timely feedback, identifying and appreciating the impact of their contributions to the organization. Employees also appreciate receiving comments from other people in their work circle and being recognized by their peers. Heartfelt kudos from the team is a great way to show and feel valued.

In our globalized working landscape, there are innumerable opportunities to show people how much we value their jobs. But, its effectiveness as a true motivator will depend on how recognition is supported and delivered. Successful leaders will be those able to communicate feedback and praise with accuracy, integrity, and authenticity.