Things I Wish I Had Known About Recognition As A First Time Manager

Do you recall when you were first hired or promoted to the position of manager or director of a department? I know I do. It was about three decades ago now. 

There were a lot of new tasks to perform. Many meetings to attend. Several HR functions to complete, such as submitting attendance reports for payroll. Reports of performance metrics to show productivity and efficiency.

Yet not one person instructed me on how to recognize the staff I now managed. Just recently, I was one of them. I had no clue about managing and leading people. I gave my best answers in the interview and they picked me. 

Things I wish I knew about recognition as a first-time manager were some of the following.

1. Relationships are far more important than tasks.

I found this truth out the hard way. It came with handling vacation requests. This was back before emails and you submitted vacation requests by handwritten paper memos. They would come into your mailbox and I shuffled in them with all the other papers you received into some sense of prioritization. 

My mistake was treating those paper-based vacation requests as tasks like everything else in my desktop inbox. 

When I conducted performance appraisals with staff, I asked them two questions that were solely for my benefit. I asked them what were three things I was doing well as a new manager, and what were three things I needed to improve on. It amazed me at the singularity of focus on the improvement requests: get our vacation requests back quicker.

The reality was it took me no longer than two minutes tops to check the staff seniority level, scan how other vacation submissions filled the calendar so far, and then respond with a yay or nay. One to two minutes that changed how staff perceived me as their manager. That’s all it took. 

I had treated their requests as simply another task and put them off. When I put relationships first and addressed their precious vacation requests right away, the rapport with my staff improved immensely. 

Tasks were always there and eventually they got done. People will not always be there and if you don’t put them first, you’ll regret it.

2. The real difference between recognition and rewards.

I do not believe I ever heard from my leaders or HR managers what the difference was between recognition and rewards. This would be something I would learn on my own as I ventured into leadership responsibilities and read lots of books on the subject.

If only first-time managers knew you recognize people for positive behaviors and you reward people for significant results, that would help many people out.

When I worked in the hospital, there were no budgets for rewards or recognition. You tried to rob Peter to pay Paul by moving funds from some budget line accounts. But it was still not very much. Many of my peers shared how they spent money out of their own pockets for rewards or funding small events.

3. The importance of caring for the needs of each person. 

Develop strong active listening skills as a new manager. I am convinced I was not as good at this as I wanted to be when I started out managing. Never let conversations or shared comments go in one ear and out the other. Listen.

Staff will come to you and share concerns about their health, family matters, and difficult life circumstances. The most important thing to do is listen and be a sounding board for them. Show you care about their needs. Demonstrate your concern.

One time, an employee talked to me about a health concern her doctor had observed. They sent her for X-rays. The results would not come back for another week, and then she would meet with her doctor. 

I made a note in my planner to follow up in a week. I offered my concern and invited her to share the outcome only if she was comfortable. Here, she confided the results and was grateful to share with someone else, as she was a single mom.

4. Getting to know how staff like to be recognized.

It is so important to know exactly how each employee likes to be recognized. When starting out as a new manager, it is easy to fall into the cookie cutter trap of treating everyone the same. 

By asking questions of staff in one-on-one sessions, you learn who is extroverted and who is introverted. You find out who likes the spotlight and wants to be centre stage. There are others who absolutely detest being on a stage and hate the limelight. 

Research shows that on average 20-25 percent of employees do not want any form of public recognition. All you have to do is have a one-on-one moment, possibly with a few peers if they so choose, when you acknowledge or celebrate them.

Pick up on their favorite food, drinks, sports teams, genre of books, etc. These insights observed and heard will become sources for the small tokens of appreciation you will give them at the right time. 

5. Learning to value the same things that your employees’ value. 

I found it was fun to learn the likes and dislikes of your employees. What became exciting for me was when I traveled and saw things I knew a particular employee would appreciate. 

Knowing the likes and preferences of your staff should always be on your mind. Let this knowledge become second nature to you. As you truly know your employees, you can relate to their needs and wants.

It’s fascinating as a manager when you think more about your employees. That’s when you value what they value. You’ll be in a bookstore and see a book or magazine that fits one of your staff. A particular sports celebrity is coming to town and you know another employee would love to see them. 

And they will appreciate the actions you take, the courtesies shown, and kind words spoken to them. You’ll see reciprocity in their doing their best work for you because you respect, recognize, and value their positive actions and contributions.

6. How valuable a handwritten note or card is to people. 

Any expression of appreciation means the world in a recognition starved workplace. But one form of recognition is becoming a dying art—the handwritten note or card. 

This was the best text-based recognition to get back then before there were cell phones or online recognition programs. They didn’t happen very often.

I recall one vice president who I reported to, doing something that really made a difference to my role. It was important enough to me and I took the time to write a thank you note to her.

On my infrequent yet subsequent visits to her office, I saw that single card standing on the blotter of her desk for several months. It was the only card ever on display in her office. That’s how much a handwritten note can mean to people.

Recognition Reflection: What training do you provide first time managers on developing positive relationships and how to recognize staff?

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