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Posted by on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Blog, Leadership Tidbit, News.

With the end of the semester often comes the opportunity to formally recognize those in our communities for the ways that they work to improve our campus, our organizations, and our lives. Due to this semester’s unconventional end, attempts to celebrate those deserving recognition may seem futile or downright impossible, but creative forms of recognition may be exactly what we need. Research shows that recognition has positive psychological and physical effects on both those who give and receive it. Neuro-economist Paul Zak has dedicated his career to studying the body’s physiological response to appreciation and has found that the simple act of saying thank you releases the hormone oxytocin in the body, which makes people more “relaxed, happy, and collaborative” (Reed, 2019). Thus, in a time of stress, disappointment, and social-distancing, opportunities for recognition have become more important than ever.

When thinking about recognition, our first thought is likely a formal awards ceremony or end of year banquet, which are efficient, effective, and fun ways of highlighting the accomplishments of our peers but can often require extensive planning and close physical proximity. At the same time, research from Gallup shows us that “success from recognition comes from promoting a recognition-rich environment, first by identifying how employees like to receive appreciation, then by encouraging recognition from all members of the organization” (Reed, 2019). This means that while end of the year ceremonies are important, it’s essential that your organization also weaves recognition into the fibers of its everyday operations—a task that can be achieved in a variety of ways, like a member of the week nomination program or a section of your organization’s newsletter dedicated to highlighting members’ accomplishments.

Equally important to how we practice recognition is how we define behaviors that are “recognition-worthy.” At a university like Vanderbilt, with such highly accomplished students, it’s important to reevaluate what actions, traits, and accomplishments we consider “deserving” of recognition. While it is easy to recognize organization members who are highly visible and heavily involved, it is also imperative to recognize members who demonstrate leadership in more subtle ways—like promoting a positive attitude, volunteering their time, or just always being present. T.J. Sullivan, author of Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations, emphasizes the importance of thanking individuals for all of the small ways that they contribute to the success of your organization, not just the ways that are immediately obvious. In the long run, this recognition of the “middle third” of your organization, members who regularly contribute but are less visible than those in leadership positions, will motivate them to become more actively involved. The recognition you provide today can pay-off in big ways for your organization in the future!

To facilitate your efforts to recognize individuals during social distancing, here are a few ideas:

  1. Use social media!
    1. Social media is a great way to give a public highlight to the accomplishments of your organization’s members. Whether you use Facebook to announce the winner of an organizational award, Instagram to create a member spotlight, or Twitter to give shout-outs, social media leaves room for creativity and serves as a platform with a large audience.
  2. Take advantage of Zoom!
    1. By now every Vanderbilt community member has likely become familiar with Zoom and its various features. Use Zoom to host a virtual awards ceremony or use the “create a poll” feature to have members create and vote on fun superlatives! Or, use the screen-sharing feature to share an end of semester slideshow to recognize the contributions of graduating seniors.
  3. Get creative with Canva (or any other graphic design application)!
    1. Use graphic design applications to create virtual awards for your organization’s members and share those out over email, during a meeting, or through social media! They don’t need to look professionally made and will demonstrate to the recipient that you valued their efforts enough to take the time to create a tangible token of your appreciation.
  4. Make the most of your time!
    1. Take some of the free time that you have gained through social distancing, if any, to reflect on your leadership roles, your Vanderbilt experience, and your life in general. Make a list of all of the people who make your daily efforts possible and worthwhile and write down how they do so. After making your list, think about ways that you can recognize those individuals either publicly or privately for the value that they add to your life and to the lives of those in your organization.
  5. Snail-mail still works!
    1. Use snail-mail to send cards, letters, or treats to those whose help brighten your days. There’s no need for extravagant gifts; small, thoughtful forms of recognition go a long way!


Written by Allie McHugh (


Bersin, J. (2012, May 1). How the Trust Hormone Drives Business Performance. Retrieved from

Reed, R. (2019). The Facts Behind Peer-to-Peer Recognition. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from

Sullivan, T. J. (2016). Motivating the middle: fighting apathy in college student organizations. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark.

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