The Great Mistake of Appreciation

Appreciation matters.

But you knew that already. Because it matters to you.  We all want to feel valued and recognized for our contributions.

Appreciation is one of the most powerful accelerators of employee engagement.  For example, research conducted by the O.C. Tanner Company shows that adding appreciation boosts scores at low-trust companies from 35% engaged to 63% engaged.

Why is feeling recognized so important to us all?  It has to do with how we’re wired.

The Psychology of Recognition

Do you remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

In the hierarchy, safety needs (employment, resources) are met through earning salary and benefits. In the business world, meeting these safety needs is an employer’s ticket to entry.

But meeting safety needs alone is not enough.

We have higher-level psychological needs too.  Our needs for belonging and esteem cry out for attention in the workplace.  Both of these needs can be met through recognition and appreciation.

If that wasn’t enough, our highest level need: self-actualization– is also met through recognition.  When we’re recognized as having further potential, and given opportunities for personal and professional growth and development, our self-actualization centers light up.

So what’s the great mistake of appreciation?

When you turn appreciation/recognition into a “to-do” to check off your list.A client, Kate, shared the story of how she coordinated a massive community service/fundraising project for her company with a local non-profit.  For this project, Kate and her team put in countless hours (on top of their “regular” jobs) of planning, organizing, networking, and executing.  It was a massive success–for both the non-profit, the company’s employees, the community, and the reputation of her corporation.

On a Friday, Kate got an Outlook invite.  She and the team were requested to meet at 1 pm on the following Tuesday for an “appreciation lunch” at a nearby restaurant.

In theory sounds good, right?It was a disaster. Here’s why:

  • 5 of the 9 on the team the team already had prior commitments and couldn’t come.

  • 2 of the 9 were remote employees and couldn’t come.

  • That left two who did show up. (Kate was one.)

  • At the lunch, the “thank you” was the lunch. While a couple of Senior Executives came to the lunch, no one actually said anything specifically appreciating the work that had happened, or asked to have any kind words passed on to the rest of the team.

  • No follow up notes, cards, emails of any kind were sent afterwards.

Kate was completely demoralized.It’s been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The Senior Execs might have meant well, but their plan backfired.

If you really want to recognize someone, try these 7 simple steps:

1. Make it Specific.

Avoid the generic “thanks to everyone who helped.”  Notice.  Pay attention.  Appreciate people by acknowledging their actual contributions.  The more specific, the better.

2. Make It Informal & Consistent.

Don’t have to wait until the lunch, dinner, annual banquet.  Think of appreciation as an ongoing process, rather than an event.  The formal appreciations can be the ornamental flourishes to the foundation that you build on consistently.

3. Make It Yourself.

Outsourcing is good for a lot of things.  Genuine appreciation is not one of them.   It does take time, but it’s a powerful investment in others. (You’ll also find that you feel better when you do it, too.)

4. Make It Public

Creating a culture of appreciation means you’re catching people doing something right.  The entire field of positive psychology is devoted to helping people flourish.  When you share appreciation outwardly, you spread positive emotional contagion.  That’s the kind of virus that’s good for health, and good for performance.

5. Make it fun.

People are tribal and social.  Create an appreciation party.  It might be simple, but it can still work.  Bring in some coffee and breakfast.  Bring in a balloon or two.  See what fun works for you and your team.

6. Make It Inclusive

Appreciation doesn’t only have to be for your top-top-performers.  By recognizing other people who also help, you’re creating an environment where they are more likely to keep giving more of their best efforts.

7.  Make It Not From You.

As powerful as we think that leader-led recognition is, peer-to-peer recognition can be even stronger.  Create opportunities for team members to appreciate each other, and support and celebrate from behind the scenes.

What tips do you have on successful appreciations?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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