How Leaders Can Motivate Teams Through Recognition and Purpose

Can organizational leaders support a high-performance culture by engaging their teams through recognition? According to experts, continuously recognizing your team members – and the organization’s mission – can lead to an amplified sense of purpose and emotional wellness that fuels greater productivity and achievement.

On Season 5, episode 3 of the Survive and Thrive podcast, host Jennifer Ayres sits down with special guest Steve Van Valin, Partner with Senscient and author of “The Search for Meaning at Work.” Together, they discuss how recognition and meaning can influence employees to drive positive culture and organizational success. 

Emotions and the Connection Between Progress and Purpose

Steve Van Valin has had years of experience working with business leaders to create cultures built on purpose. One way he succeeds in this is by promoting leadership that fosters relationships within the organization that are positive, motivational, and fulfilling. 

But why is emotion so important for workforce productivity? According to a study by Atlassian, the level of emotion that workers feel toward their work influences their productivity. The study reflected that increased arousal toward work improves productivity, as issues with high arousal were resolved quickly due to the excitement the workers had for them. The results also indicate that when teams are not excited about work, they are less likely to do the work tasks than if they are excited about it.

Building Loyalty with Empathy and Authenticity

Steve explains that empathy is necessary to cultivate real change in an organization. Furthermore, practicing empathy can enable business leaders to grow their emotional intelligence and build positive relationships with their team members.

Authentic feelings of loyalty are strengthened through workers’ enjoyment of, and favor toward, the organization. That said, leaders can view this concept as an exchange between the organization and its members – the workers benefit the organization, and the organization benefits the workers. 

This exchange goes beyond monetary compensation for employment. Instead, organizational leaders should seek out empathetic ways to improve the employee experience at the organization. 

A 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey report shows that 88% of respondents feel empathetic leadership creates loyalty among employees. Therefore, using empathy to fuel a positive relationship between the organization and the employee can foster a greater sense of meaning from the work and loyalty to the organization.

Four Ways to Fuel Productivity Through Recognition

The relationship between meaning, empathy, and progress is impossible to ignore. Team leaders can strengthen the connection between their workers and their organization through recognition for their people – and recognition for their organizational mission. 

1. Identify the Organization’s Meaning

People are motivated by an emotional sense of altruism and fulfillment from their work. According to Steve, leaders can harness these motivational effects by clarifying and recognizing the organization’s purpose. He explains that doing so will enable team members to build emotional connections to their organization, amplifying their sense of purpose at work.

Identifying and consistently acknowledging an organization’s purpose and values can also aid workers in recognizing their own progress and achievements. Furthermore, making progress towards an organization’s purpose will strengthen this meaning for team members. 

Leaders can start by using leading principles to define and articulate their organization’s meaning and overarching mission. For example, determining your organization’s brand, stake in the game, future vision, and overarching mission can help leaders to better identify and communicate its overall purpose.

2. Cultivating Emotional Connections and a Sense of Belonging

Steve’s book is built on the idea that teamwork begins with belonging. Leaders can improve their work culture to help workforce members feel a sense of belonging and growth through their team involvement. 

Communicating and highlighting an organization’s mission will also help employees recognize their contributions toward this greater meaning, fueling their emotional connection to their work and their team. And because people are naturally wired to seek out meaning in their actions, enforcing meaningful emotional ties to the organization will bolster its productivity.

For example, a leader can cultivate emotional connections with staff by providing career development opportunities aligned with their worker’s growth. By holding one-on-one meetings and communicating with workers about their career goals, you can easily support them with opportunities to work toward these aspirations. This will communicate to your workers that you value them as members of your team and enforce a sense of belonging.

3. Practicing Respectful Leadership

Cultivating a positive and trusting relationship between workers and the workplace is possible through respectful leadership based on principles of inclusivity, affirmation, and autonomy. 

Leaders can build upon the relationship by showing respect to their employees. Steve explains on the podcast that respect unlocks authenticity and that showing respect toward workers and building their trust can lead to feelings of psychological safety which promote authenticity in the workplace. 

One actionable way to practice respectful leadership is to provide workers flexibility within their schedules. This nurtures a sense of empathy and autonomy in the workplace that your employees are sure to appreciate. 

4. Improving Work Culture Through Recognition

Building a positive work culture based on recognition and affirmation can help team members feel a greater sense of belonging within the workplace. This relates back to the idea that psychological safety allows workers to feel comfortable and fulfilled within their teams.

Cultivating a positive work culture can have powerful effects on the organization’s overall progress and success. For example, research from Great Place to Work shows that workplaces and businesses where diverse employees feel they belong grow revenue over three times faster than less-inclusive organizations.

Building up work culture positivity and helping employees feel a sense of belonging within their teams is possible when leaders openly recognize the value of their employee’s efforts. 

This can be done by developing and embracing a recognition program that acknowledges and rewards workers who show productivity toward the organization’s mission. One example of a reward could be a post on the company’s official social media that expresses positive recognition for the employee’s hard work


Steve’s book provides practical steps, suggestions, and actions to help business leaders build trust in the workplace using autonomy. So check out Steve’s book for more actionable ideas to apply his leadership concepts as solutions within the workplace.

Check out this week’s episode of the Survive and Thrive Podcast to learn more about improving workplace productivity through recognition and purpose.