Appreciation (Merriam-Webster) -
a: “A feeling or expression of admiration, approval, or gratitude”
b: “Judgment, evaluation, especially a favorable critical estimate”
c: “Sensitive awareness, especially: recognition of aesthetic values”
The Art of Meaningful Appreciation
Simple things consistently done over time shape a culture.
Consistent appreciation of your team over time produces a culture where team members feel valued and know that their contributions are making a difference. Lack of appreciation of your team over time produces a culture where team members doubt or question their value and are unsure of their purpose within the organization.
As happens in most relationships, the more familiar someone is, the more we tend to take for granted simple acts of appreciation. In fact, things that we once appreciated become expectations.
Organizational relationships are tricky in that at their most basic level, they are a transaction: I pay you for doing the work you’ve agreed to. Because of this transactional element some leaders question if it’s necessary to thank employees for doing their job. But as we all know, a purely transactional employment relationship is not fulfilling and it's rarely longstanding.
I’ve highlighted on several occasions that the number one culture trend right now is that employees are longing for a sense of purpose in their work. They don’t want just a job - i.e. they don’t want just a transaction - they want more fulfillment that comes from a sense of purpose and a community in which they can actively be a part.
A key way that we can foster fulfillment is by articulating our appreciation for their contribution and specifically connecting the dots for how their work supports the mission of the organization. Appreciation is a powerful way of helping employees find purpose in their work.
But there are certainly some challenges to expressing appreciation in the workplace. Let’s take a look at a few.
Challenges to Expressing Appreciation
- We assume employees know we appreciate them.
This is one of the most common mistakes I see leaders make. We assume employees know how much we appreciate them and so we don’t take the time to verbalize our thoughts.
- We expect them to do their job.
Because we expect a certain level of performance from employees to do the job that they have been hired for, we don’t think we need to acknowledge their work. Noticing a job well done does not negate the fact that they are doing what they are paid to do. Instead, verbally appreciating their contribution serves to emphasize the importance of their work and typically inspires them to contribute with even more passion.
- We are afraid to show favoritism.
Out of a fear of not treating all employees the same, we refrain from highlighting any employee. While it’s wise to pay attention to any tendency to show favoritism, not appreciating team members does far more harm to morale.
- We reduce appreciation to another thing on a management checklist.
Another complexity with showing appreciation in the workplace is that it can sometimes be reduced to a process or system that feels disingenuous. This is usually a response to the fear of showing favoritism, so we create a process by which all employees are equally acknowledged in some bureaucratic system that makes everyone feel like another cog in the wheel. The result is the opposite of what appreciation is intended to do.
Appreciation is a function of relational leadership (leading with heart) and as a result you have to guard against being too formulaic in your approach. Here are three ways you can approach employee appreciation with intentionality.
3 Ways to Approach Employee Appreciation with Intentionality
Great leaders fight to see beyond their own perspective. I like to call it, “putting on your curiosity hat”. Try to put yourself in your employees shoes. What are they juggling? Where are they succeeding? Where are they struggling? What do they need to hear that will help encourage them that their contribution matters?
Awareness is getting beyond yourself and seeing things from your employee’s perspective. As soon as you do this you notice little ways that you can show appreciation.
You notice that a recent event required a lot of attention to detail. Thank that team member for making sure the details were covered and articulate why that attention to detail was important for the customer experience.
Maybe you have an employee who is launching a new program and it requires a bit of research in order to ensure that your launch is effective. Make a point to note the extra learning that was required and how helpful that will be to a successful launch.
When employees sense that you are paying attention to the work that goes on behind the scenes they will feel encouraged that their contribution matters and is not going unnoticed.
A flippant “thank you for all you do” can actually be more negative than positive. A generic thank you communicates to an employee that you don’t really know what all they do but you know you need to say thank you.
Your responsibility as the leader is to really understand the employee’s contribution and evaluate what contributed to their success. With that understanding you’re better equipped to appreciate their work in a meaningful way.
A few questions to their direct manager or their peers can give you insight into what they did and equip you to acknowledge it with more specificity.
Upon learning that a team member met a key quarterly goal, ask their manager or their peers what they did to succeed at that goal. Then thank that employee by repeating back the key steps they did that led to the successful outcome.
Once you’ve developed a habit of awareness and evaluation, you are better equipped to express your appreciation. However, expression can take various forms and it is subject to interpretation. What feels like appreciation to one team member may be mortifying to another.
To express appreciation thoughtfully requires you as the leader to have a good understanding of how your team members best receive appreciation.
With these complexities in mind, here is a list of ways that you can show appreciation in the workplace. This list is in no way exhaustive but my hope is that it surfaces for you the simple and consistent ways that you can show appreciation to your team.
Employee Appreciation Ideas:
Real-time acknowledgement Thank your team member on the spot for something you appreciated. Be quick and specific and then jump back into the flow of work.
After Action Review If you have a habit of debriefing with your team after an event (and I hope you do), be sure to start those review discussions with acknowledgements of individual and group wins. Then move on to the constructive evaluation.
1:1 Meetings In your weekly one on one meetings, be sure to note their specific impact from the week
Team Meetings Start team meetings by highlighting wins; I personally like to create a culture where other team members are calling out and celebrating their peers
Notes Receiving a written thank you note communicates intentionality and thoughtfulness. Don’t underestimate this artform.
Small gifts An unexpected gift card is a nice little surprise
Honor them in front of their family, coworkers and friends When you speak well of your team especially in front of the people closest to them, they will feel valued
Include employees in big organizational winsIf you hit your quarterly or annual goals, do something to celebrate together - order lunch for everyone, give a bonus or small gift, take a couple hours to go do something fun together, etc.
Appreciation should not be reserved for Employee Appreciation Day or your annual review discussion. To contribute positively to your organizational culture, appreciation should be a practice that flows consistently in your day to day behaviors as a team.
Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker, and leadership coach who consults churches and non-profits to help them lead from their extraordinary best. She speaks at conferences and churches nationwide, seeking to help others develop their leadership gifts and lead confidently. As Founder and CEO of The 4Sight Group, she consults with individuals and teams on leadership and organizational health.