Employee engagement can boost productivity, improve workplace culture, and benefit a company’s bottom line. Unfortunately, despite recent improvements, overall employee engagement is still relatively low in the US. In 2018, Gallup clocked a historic high of just 34 percent engagement among American workers.

When looking for ways to improve employee engagement, many company leaders turn to employee recognition. There is good reason why: By acknowledging employees’ accomplishments through simple rewards like shoutouts, bonuses, and paid time off, you encourage them to stick around and succeed in their roles. In fact, a recent study found employees who feel positively valued by their employers are more motivated to do their best work and more satisfied with their jobs. In the study, 92 percent of positively valued employees said they were satisfied, compared to 29 percent of those who do not feel valued. Similarly, 91 percent of employees who feel valued said they were motivated to do their best work, compared to 37 percent who don’t feel valued.

However, recognition only works if you’re recognizing the right behaviors. Many managers and executives focus on things like positive attitudes and an aptitude for hard work. While these are important traits for any employee to possess, they are also shared by the majority of the workforce.

So, what characteristics should you look for when searching for a great employee to recognize? Here are four characteristics that suggest a worker is truly exceptional and deserving of praise:

1. Confidence — Not Arrogance

There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and discerning when an employee is displaying one trait or the other can be tough.

Employees who exude confidence are intrinsically motivated. They are aware of their capabilities, but they never step over the line into arrogance. Instead, they recognize there is always room for improvement. They are open to feedback and criticism, whereas arrogant employees are not. Arrogant employees believe they no longer need to learn, grow, or change.

When looking for examples of confidence to recognize, look for employees who come to the table with well-thought-out ideas during a brainstorm, employees who are not afraid to speak up during difficult situations. These are the behaviors of exceptional, confident employees.

2. Accountability

The most frustrating responses a manager can hear from an employee are, “It was not my job” or “It was not my fault.” Employees who shirk responsibility when the going gets tough are not deserving of recognition, but those employees who hold themselves and their peers accountable for all outcomes should be rewarded with positive recognition.

3. A Focus on Organizational Goals

Organizations that establish strategic goals see higher levels of success than their less goal-oriented counterparts, and 69 percent of high-performing companies say communicating business goals to the whole company is the most important step in building high-performing teams.

Exceptional employees are those who take the organization’s goals, mission, and standards as their own and strive to help the company reach its targets in any way they can. You can often tell who these employees are because they tend to have a have a certain perspective that allows them to differentiate between real problems and distracting background noise. Goal-focused employees will also display this trait by consistently producing high-quality work and/or actively engaging with the rest of the workplace to get people moving toward results.

Be sure to recognize these employees for these behaviors — it will reinforce their positive behaviors and encourage other employees to adopt the same attitude.

4. Excellent Leadership Skills

Not all employees are natural-born leaders, but those who do display exceptional leadership qualities are ones you definitely want to keep in your organization. Leadership often presents itself in how an employee communicates and interacts with others. For example, leaders are clear about what needs to be done, but they also take part in the action items necessary to make those things happen. A true leader will also inspire others through idea generation and similar activities.

Recognizing the character traits of great employees is a powerful way to make your workforce feel valued, improve overall engagement, and foster better behaviors in every employee. Employees who demonstrate confidence, take accountability for their actions, have their organization’s goals in mind, and lead their peers are the kinds of employees who truly drive results.

When an organization is looking to grow — whether in terms of revenue, customer satisfaction, or employee morale — it needs exceptional employees on its side. Be sure to recognize yours to keep them motivated and moving.

Andrea Meyer is director of benefits for WorkSmart Systems.

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