Most people think that spontaneity means acting without planning. That's not always true. It is very possible to plan for spontaneity — especially when it comes to corporate recognition. Here are a few ways to do so:

Talk to your employees — Ask people one-on-one about what motivates them, or have them share their comments in a group. Be more specific by asking, “If we attain our goals (finish this project, etc.), what would be rewarding to you (or to the group)?”

Recognition tools — Have on hand some spontaneous ways to thank and acknowledge people — thank-you cards, tokens, pins, certificates, pass-around trophies, mementos, gag gifts, gift certificates, discount coupons, movie passes, or on-the-spot awards. These can be available to all managers or be customized to a suit a particular area of the organization. At Chevron, for example, supervisors can unlock a “Treasure Chest” to allow a performer to select a gift of his or her choice on the spot.

Thank Yous — Plan to use some time at scheduled meetings to talk about group and individual successes and who made them happen. Leave positive voicemail messages for individuals whose work has stood out, and pass positive e-mails on to others. Ask an executive to call an employee to thank him or her for doing a great job. These all look spontaneous, but should be done strategically.

Celebrations — Have the resources for spontaneous parties — confetti, balloons, chilled champagne. Consider hosting an ice cream social, a pancake breakfast, or a barbecue or potluck lunch on short notice to celebrate a milestone or group success. At Disney's Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla., for example, members of management bring in doughnuts and balloons for employees in the registration area on especially busy days, or they host a spontaneous employee recognition celebration in the employee cafeteria.

Share fresh ideas — Fresh ideas in and of themselves add energy and fun to a workplace. Use the company newsletter to share recognition ideas that have worked with employees from other parts of the organization. Or host a recognition sharing conference, as managers have done at Caterpillar and Sears.

With just a little effort and a bit of planning, you can use spontaneity as a way to recognize your employees. Just remember:

Involve others whom you are trying to motivate. Ask what would be fun and rewarding to them — and try to make that a part of whatever you do.

Select the recognition tools that you plan to use in advance. Then put those tools in place so that they are there when you need them.

Develop a routine to perpetuate recognition. Making it a part of your daily routine helps ensure that it will continue.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is a lecturer, a president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego, and the best-selling author of Please Don't Just Do What I Tell You! Do What Needs to Be Done, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, and Managing For Dummies. For more information, call (800) 575-5521, visit, or send an e-mail to