Recognizing Individual Employees Helps the Whole Team

Individual employee recognition for a job well done is important. Many organizations have programs that formally recognize employees for their achievements, such as “employee of the month” or “star performer” awards. These awards typically focus on highlighting the performance of single employees. Given that most employees work within teams, how does singling out one team member impact the rest of the team? New Research (Li, Zheng, Harris, Liu, & Kirkman, 2016) explores the positive spillover effects that recognizing an individual team member can have on the rest of the team.


In a study of front-line employees in China, researchers found that when employees had a team member receive “employee of the month,” it actually increased the job performance of the other team members. And not only did individual job performance increase, the researchers also found that overall team performance increased for those teams who had an “employee of the month.”

Rather than promote jealousy, individual recognition can actually serve as a way for employees to observe the types of behavior the organization values. Recognition reinforces the positive behavior of “top performers” and acknowledges them as role models for other employees. In fact, the researchers conducted an experiment using student teams and found that team members have a tendency to model their behavior after a top performer. Given the importance of witnessing and modeling behavior, the more employees who work with star performers (and are able to see them in action), the better.

Individual recognition can also benefit the team more generally through promoting a sense of collective pride. Recognition of an individual team member can actually be seen as a positive reflection on the entire team. Instead of creating competition between members, it appears as though having one of your own recognized lifts up the rest of the team.


Don’t be afraid to single out star performers – it makes them feel good and it overtly reinforces the positive behavior that other employees should be engaging in. However, the process of identifying top performers needs to be transparent, so the recognition is meaningful rather than seen as simply rewarding “teacher’s pets.”

As a note of caution, the researchers found that for teams without a formally recognized member, performance actually dropped slightly after the recognition announcements had been made. As a result, it is important for organizations to ensure that employees from a wide variety of teams, departments, or units are recognized for their hard work.


Li, N., Zheng, X., Harris, T.B., Liu, X. & Kirkman, B.L. (2016). Recognizing “me” benefits “we”: Investigating the positive spillover effects of formal individual recognition in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(7), 925–939.