Should You Recognize or Show Appreciation to Average Workers?


Dealing with employee performance issues cannot be unraveled without understanding how employee recognition, performance, and appreciation are intertwined. Like a car engine that has both gas-powered systems and electronically driven components, the two systems are interrelated. Both the gasoline driven engine and the electrical system have to work well independently but they also must coordinate their efforts together for the car to fully function properly.

Similarly, employee recognition and authentic appreciation are separate but intertwined.  Understanding their interrelationship is critical for dealing with different levels of performance in the workplace.

Performance is important, but . . .

Let’s first look at the importance of and challenges associated with focusing on the performance level of your team members. One definition of work is “providing goods and services that others want and are willing to pay for.” You have to get the tasks done in the timeframe desired by the client, at an acceptable quality level, for a price they are willing to pay, while managing the organization to be able to sustain itself financially.

But a basic challenge in working together with others is that not everyone performs at the same level with regard to the quality and amount of work done. Within a team, you will probably have at least one high achiever, a few above average employees, a group of solid team members in the middle, and then some who are not performing up to the level expected.

While many leaders focus on high achievers or worry about low performers, I would suggest that even more important are another group of employees: those who are critical to a successful organization but often get overlooked. They are those in the middle of the pack with regards to the level of their performance.

Average achievers

The group of employees that supervisors really should be concerned about is the larger group of “middle” employees. They aren’t high-performing stars. But they aren’t the lowest performers.

The middle employees are those 50–60 percent who generally do their work but aren’t going to be recognized as top performers. I liken them to the linemen and linebackers on a football team. They aren’t the star quarterbacks and running backs that score most of the points, but they are critical to having a solid team. Another analogy would be that the middle group of employees is like the flour and eggs in a baking recipe. If all you have are spices and icing, you don’t have much of a cake!

These are the employees who need appreciation for their “day-in, day-out” work on mundane, non-flashy tasks. If you lose your middle employees, you will struggle to perform well as a team. Often, when encouraged and treated with respect, a number of the middle workers move up and become key team players important to the success of the organization.

Conversely, if neglected and ignored they will either sink into the lower ranks of performance as a result of discouragement and not feeling valued, or they will quit and move on to another place where they hope to be appreciated for their contributions.  (Remember: 79% of employees who leave voluntarily cite a lack of appreciation as one of the key reasons they leave.)  You don’t want this to happen. So I suggest the following.

Positive Ways to Deal with Performance Issues

  • Support and encourage those reliable employees who are not performing well. Everyone needs encouragement. Stay true to your standards and don’t let them slide, but remember some people may have other things going on in their lives that may be impacting their performance. Be firm but kind.
  • Focus on shaping their behavior in the right direction. Don’t try to move them from a C-plus player to an A-minus star. It’s like teaching soccer to little kids—you can’t just praise them when they score a goal (it may not happen all season!), but you praise them when they are kicking the ball to a team member. At work, if they get part of the task done correctly, mention that piece and then add one specific thing they could do slightly better.
  • Don’t neglect your average performers. Communicating appreciation to your solid middle group of employees will pay huge dividends in the success and stability of your team. Don’t neglect them or you’ll have a revolving door of team members (and you’ll be spending a lot more time hiring and training than you want to!)


A healthy, vibrant workplace has a number of important core characteristics, but one is readily apparent: work gets done. Work is about work—getting tasks done and serving your customers. But people need encouragement and support – both recognition for work well done, but also appreciation for their efforts (even if the results are less than exemplary).  Learning how to show authentic appreciation to the middle 50-60% of a work group is critical to keep them engaged, encouraged, and growing.

Dr. Paul White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Marlene Jacques

This is extremely useful. Also, it would also appreciate feedback from the team on how to address the issues of high achievers who are never promoted simply because of their professional ethics and commitments and that they will continue to perform extremely well under any circumstances?

Paul White

Marlene & Juliett, you are correct. “Toxic achievers” are a challenge (and a pain!) For a full description of them and how to deal with them, I have sections in both of my books, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace (2014), and The Vibrant Workplace (2017), but I will post something on them in the next week or two, as well.

Marlene Jacques


Thank you for your feedback. I will try to purchase copies of your books because I am interested in finding out people’s perception of those who continuously excel at work and whether or not their commitment is inherent of their personal values, cultural upbringing, professional, and ethical values.

I would also like to share with the team the elements of my annual performance review and appraisal. The form contains four (4) specific columns to measure work performance: Exceeds Expectations, Meets All Expectations, Needs Improvement, Unsatisfactory. What is your take of that evaluation process form? Should certain measures be combined?

Paul White

Marlene, I am by no means an expert on performance reviews, but as a psychologist and seeing the most recent research coming out on the topic — the most effective form of performance feedback is: a) immediate (right after the positive or “need for improvement” action); and b) specific — and related to a real life situation (vs. a global summary).
Dr Paul

E. Burtrum

Employee recognition and appreciation are very important in keeping an engaged and committed work force. I have been an advocate of this practice since our exit interview section regarding how employees felt they were recognized/appreciated was the lowest scoring overall. An employee has a choice as to who they’re going to work for and their choice of our organization should be appreciated or they will leave.

Paul White

E.B. you are right on target — we all have a choice. And research shows that 79% of those who leave an organization voluntarily cite a lack of appreciation as one of the primary reasons they leave.
Dr. Paul

Larry R.

Why do we refer to employees that are “fully competent and fully performing up to expectations” as ‘AVERAGE’. I want a team composed of these kinds of soldiers. Each employee is an individual and should be respected as such; not summed up and divided by N. What I ask of an employee is that they do their job. They do it fully. And that each of them searches for excellence to the best of their ability. There is no AVERAGE. To address employees as elements in an array is a leader neglecting their troops. It’s deriliction of duty. In the best of work units, the team shines like a star, and each individual contributes to that.

Paul White

Larry, I agree with you — I want solid, dependable colleagues. If you see the body of my work (especially, The Vibrant Workplace), you’ll see that I am a strong, outspoken advocate of the inherent value of each person — regardless of their level of performance on some objective measure. By definition, there is “average” in the sense of performance — an average amount of work done, etc., but all of us are unique and remarkable in our own ways. Dr. Paul

Les Mutchie

From the soldier perspective, we still had load carriers, and a percentage of not so’s…
When you have plenty of people, it’s tolerable. When you are whittled down to bare minimums of a safe and/or productive workplace, that’s when having the less than average’s becomes very impactful. Like Larry, I would take all the “Averages” I could get my hands on. Sadly, many a manager does not have the interest or awareness to be cognizant of the crowd that “just” keeps the ship moving through the water…. The ship still has to be moved, and many perpetual over achievers or upwardly mobile are not around long enough in that crowd to even learn or nurture how it happens to successfully persist…. my $0.02.

Paul White

Agreed. By definition, most of us are “in the middle” with regards to talent and abilities; so as leaders we need to encourage and support ALL team members. An interesting study done by Google and posted in the Harvard Business Review showed that the most effective teams were NOT those made of “stars”, but the teams who got to know one another personally and supported one another. Dr. Paul

Lisa Kaylene Powell, DVM

Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I am with you in that we need to recognize and encourage middle-of-the-road performers when possible. I am a firm believers that people will meet expectations; that is, if I ignore them and expect little, that is what I will get. If I treat them respectfully, and am honest with them, then I can get an improvement in integrity. How do you recommend we present these employees to higher levels of supervision to get some positive attention? Often these “average” performers seem to be invisible to upper management.

Paul White

Lisa, great question on how to bring attention about your solid team members to higher level supervisors. I think being intentional about communicating (regularly, if possible) to those “up the chain” is the best action to take — either verbally or in writing (which I think would be more helpful to the employee since it may go in their file) about specific actions, tasks and especially character qualities you see in your team members that help your team work well. And if you cc: the employee (or forward the email to them later), that will be encouraging to them as well.
Dr. Paul