Monday Mornings with Madison

Appreciation: A Management Superpower, Part 1

The “your paycheck is appreciation enough” mantra that employers have recited in the past is passé.  Managers and business owners who still think money is the only thank you an employee ever needs may find themselves facing some major and growing business problems such as:  bad reviews on sites such as Great Place to Work, BuiltIn, Glassdoor and Indeed, an inability to recruit top talent, and high turnover.   And these days, being able to recruit, hire and retain the best talent is the most important business advantage there is.  In fact, it may be the only business advantage there is.

If employees are the life blood of an organization, then employers need to understand that today’s employees expect more than a paycheck.  They expect benefits, employee-friendly workplace policies, and a positive workplace culture where employees are valued.  But, really, what it all boils down to is that employees want to feel appreciated.  Not just be silently appreciated… but to actually feel that appreciation.

Appreciation is such a little word… but it is packed with meaning.  Employees want to know that their work is seen, their contributions matter, and they – as individuals – are respected and esteemed.  What does appreciation look and sound like?   A proverbial or actual pat on the back.  A smile and direct eye contact when an employee is performing well.  A comment, “Thank you for what you do.”  A bell rung to say, “You did good” in front of your coworkers.  A hand-written note that says, “Way to go” for hitting a tough deadline or doing a job quietly and consistently well behind the scenes.   A text message that says “Kudos on a job well done”.  Or a short email that simply says “You are a valuable part of our team!”  While these tiny expressions of appreciation may seem small and insignificant, they actually deliver exponentially big results.  Think of it like the tap of a child’s fist that is packing the wallop of a prize fighter’s blow.  Kapow!  And it does.  Those tiny, personal gestures stick with employees long after.

The Long-Term Effects of Workplace Appreciation

Besides reducing turnover and making it easier to recruit, there are other benefits for the workplace when managers routinely express appreciation.  University of California-Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, who wrote The Little Book of Gratitude: Creating a Life of Happiness and Wellbeing by Giving Thanks, put forth that a “Lack of gratitude is a major factor driving job dissatisfaction, turnover, absenteeism, and often, burnout.”  But positive things happen in our brains not only when we receive appreciation, but also when we give it.  Expressing appreciation increases the giver’s and receiver’s feelings of self-worth.  When someone affirms our work or effort, we feel validated and it can help us to feel like our contributions matter.  This is especially true when the words of praise are coming from the individual’s boss.  Appreciation also strengthens the relational bond of the team.  A psychological study found that new members of a sorority reported feeling more gratitude toward older sorority sisters who gave them words of appreciation and praise. The women also ended up experiencing higher relationship quality and satisfaction.

Beyond feel-good factors, appreciation has been found to boost productivity.  Research found that productivity can increase up to 50% just from managers and colleagues expressing gratitude according to a study.  The University of Pennsylvania was running a fundraiser. The director of the fundraising team just told the team “I’m grateful for all of your hard work and appreciate your contributions to the university.” After this expression of appreciation, the team made 50% more phone calls than prior to her expressing appreciation.  Expressing gratitude has also been found to increase individual well-being.  Studies showed that grateful adults reported higher levels of well-being than those who are less grateful.  And all of this positive impact has a ripple effect.  A study found that when individuals helped others — and then they were thanked for their efforts — they were more likely to not only help that person in the future but help others as well.

Last but not least, appreciation helps reduce friction in the workplace.  When everyone is expressing appreciation positively to one another, then it is easier to handle issues when they arise.  A University of Kentucky study proved that gratitude can even reduce aggression.  Those practicing gratitude showed more empathy toward others and were less likely to retaliate when given negative feedback.

Praise ‘From-The-Bottom-Up’ Regularly

When it comes to appreciation, from-the-top-down extravagant efforts aren’t nearly as powerful as from-the-bottom-up tiny gestures.  Mid-sized and large companies will often organize company-wide appreciation gifts and events to let employees know they are appreciated.  These are exercises by the leadership and/or business owners to say “we appreciate you all.”  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Those gestures are good and needed.  But those sweeping, HR-driven acts of appreciation cannot take the place of individual managers expressing appreciation to their direct reports face-to-face (or screen-to-screen, phone-to-phone, chat-to-chat or email-to-email for those who are still socially distancing) directly and regularly.  That one-on-one conversation — where a manager says “I see you.  Your work matters and is appreciated.  I’m so glad you’re on my team.” – is far more impactful than any grand gesture HR can ever do.

So, with what frequency should managers be communicating praise?  Certainly more often than they are.  An analysis by Gallup found that only one in three workers in the U.S. strongly agree that they received recognition or praise for doing good work in the past seven (7) days.  It also found that at most any given company, it was not uncommon for employees to feel that their best efforts were routinely ignored. Further, employees who did not feel adequately recognized indicated that they were twice as likely to say they would quit within the next year.

And, how often should a manager be giving each direct report some appreciation?  Another Gallup workplace survey asked employees to recall who gave them their most meaningful and memorable recognition. In that poll, the most memorable recognition came most often from an employee’s manager (28%), followed by a high-level leader or CEO (24%), the manager’s manager (12%), a customer (10%) and peers (9%).  Interestingly, 17% cited “other” as the source of their most memorable recognition, such as a vendor or a subordinate.

The best managers promote a praise-rich setting, with appreciation being express from every direction.  They are quite aware of how their direct reports prefer to receive appreciation and provide this feedback frequently.  Gallup recommends a manager should be expressing appreciation every seven days to ensure that the employee knows the significance of the recent achievement.

How to Craft an Appreciation Message

Finding the right words of appreciation to say to a direct report is not always easy.  So many managers find it hard to say or write something that expresses appreciation and let the person know how much they are valued.  This exercise involves emotions that some managers struggle to express.  Here are five tips for crafting a good message.

  1. Communicate the reason why — Acknowledge why you’re expressing appreciation. This helps an employee realize the impact of their work.
  2. Recognize the effect of their contribution — Cite the positive impact this person’s work made.  Let him/her know the worth of their work.
  3. Make it meaningful – Make the note somewhat personal so that the employee knows that this is not just a perfunctory message delivered to everyone.
  4. Be careful with the tone — Be precise with what you say.  Keep in mind who you’re saying it to.  While there is a need to connect, it must maintain a formal business tone.  Avoid being too personal.
  5. Add something more to make it really special – If a pat on the back does not feel like enough of a gesture to thank an employee who really went above and beyond, pair it with a small but personal gift such as a desk clock for the employee who puts in long hours, or a monogrammed pen for the company’s blogger.

Next week, we’ll look at actual messages of appreciation that managers and coworkers can use to communicate gratitude at work.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.” Sam Walton


© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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