Employee Appreciation Is About Valuing People, Not Performance

Ross Brooks
Employee Appreciation Is About Valuing People, Not Performance

Do you know the difference between employee appreciation and employee recognition?

There’s a subtle difference between the two. According to Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, recognition is “positive feedback based on results or performance”, while appreciation is more about people, less about what they do, more about who they are.

One study from the HAAS School of Business at UC Berkeley found that people who feel recognised are 23% more effective and productive, but those who feel like the people around them genuinely care are a whopping 43% more effective. Not only that, 66% of employees (76% for millennials) say they would “likely leave their job if they didn’t feel appreciated.”

The transformative power of appreciation

Some people look down on appreciation and gratitude for being too “New Age”, but research has already shown that they can lead to less stress, fewer sick days, more positive emotions and higher satisfaction with our jobs and coworkers. Showing appreciation at work might be at odds with a more hierarchical management approach, but the benefits are undeniable.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges of showing more appreciation at work is moving from a culture that values hierarchy and seeing people as an obstacle in the way of promotion, to one that embraces work as a shared challenge that requires the support of other people.

One company that understands that all too well is Southwest Airlines, which shows its appreciation by sending flowers and cards when there is a significant events happening in someone’s life – whether it’s a child’s graduation, marriage or a sick relative.

“We’re all encountering different obstacles in our life, we’re all celebrating different things in our life,” says Cheryl Hughey, managing director of culture at Southwest.

Employee appreciation needs to start from the top, but it can quickly create a feedback loop that reinforces itself. For example, employees that feel appreciated perform more acts of kindness – like showing new employees around and covering for coworkers – which reinforces a culture of appreciation and makes other people more likely to help those around them.

Bringing appreciation into the workplace

1. Focus on the person, not their performance

Showing appreciation doesn’t mean that you have to like or agree with someone, or that you have to hang out with them and become best friends. In order to appreciate someone, all you have to do is be able to recognise their value.

“Appreciation is about people and their value,” says Robbins. “You create an environment where people feel valued and appreciated for who they are, not just what they do.”

One exercise you can try is the “appreciation hot seat”, which involves one person sitting in the “hot seat”, while other members of the team go around in a circle sharing something they appreciate about that person. Before you judge, just try it and see what happens.

2. Not everyone speaks the same language

In the same way that not everyone likes to receive public recognition, not everyone interprets appreciation the same either. Dr Paul White, psychologist and author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, has identified five ways of showing your appreciation.

  • Words of Affirmation – uses words to affirm people
  • Acts of Service – actions speak louder than words
  • Receiving Gifts – people like things to feel appreciated
  • Quality Time – giving someone undivided attention
  • Physical Touch – appropriate touch (high-five, pat on the shoulder)

Figure out how different people in your team or department show appreciation so that you can tailor yours appropriately. If you’re not sure, then ask. Not everyone will know which style of appreciation they prefer, but discussing the topic openly will help to create clarity.

3. Leaders need to embrace employee appreciation

You can’t expect your team to be more grateful unless you start showing more appreciation.

Some ideas for cultivating more appreciation at work include writing three things that you’re grateful for every morning in a journal. If that feels like a step too far, why not schedule some time in your diary for appreciation instead? A daily reminder to show your gratitude is better than keeping it in your head, where it’s much less likely that a habit is going to form.

One national survey on gratitude commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation found that 93 percent of those polled agreed that grateful bosses were more likely to be successful, and only 18 percent thought that grateful bosses would be seen as “weak.”

The same survey showed that people were least likely to express gratitude at work, despite wishing to be thanked more often themselves at work. Once you’ve built some momentum, a culture of appreciation is more likely to become self-sustaining – but only if you lead.

4. Consistency is the only way to change culture

For appreciation to become part of your culture it needs to become part of everyday life. That means working appreciation exercises into weekly team meetings, or making them part of your internal communications so that employees always have gratitude in mind.

Here are a few examples from a Slack channel we’ve dedicated to employee appreciation:

“Thanks for always looking out for my well-being and caring about work/life balance. I promise I didn’t stay in the office too late to work on this.”

“Thank you for always sharing your knowledge and answering the many questions I sent your way during my onboarding.”

“We’ve all learnt so much from you being here with us and really appreciate the time you’ve invested in us to help the APAC business succeed.”

Just like annual surveys, there’s very little value in holding an appreciation event once a year. For employee appreciation to work, it needs to become ingrained in your culture.

Appreciation boils down to authentic human interactions

The founding father of employee engagement, William Kahn, highlighted the importance of being able to bring our “full self” to work. Appreciation not only feeds into how meaningful we find our work, but also how “safe” we feel – which is essential for high performing teams.

Above all else, appreciation needs to be authentic. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable with the idea at first, as long as you’re fully committed to try and make it work. If not, employees will know you’re faking it and just go along with the idea to make sure they don’t stand out.

Recognition will always be an important part of acknowledging great work, but appreciation can transform an unpleasant workplace into somewhere that we enjoy going everyday.

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