As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

— John F Kennedy

Do not start employee-recognition initiatives all the while you think they are bogus or a waste of time. Your workforce will feel it and view it the same way, and you will miss an opportunity to empower and enhance the results of your teams. 

If you are appreciative, express it wholeheartedly.

Lead by example, whether you are an executive or the newest entry-level position, care about your comrades. Care about expressing your appreciation. And, when it comes to showing it, please think just as much about how you do that, not just what you do that ticks the box.  

There are times when I was expected to know I was appreciated, but I honestly didn’t feel it. I received a prestigious award from my company, the Australian Pacesetter award from a multinational powerhouse and yet, I truly wondered if they really cared about me. I had suffered migraines for almost 8 weeks, rendering me incapable of seeing properly as I eventually dissipated into blurred vision and heightened concern. I was admitted to the hospital to run brain tests and spinal taps, while being transferred in the cold and hardened atmosphere of an ambulance moving from CT scans to specialized eye wards in other medical facilities. The pain was excruciating, so much so that a doctor was injecting steroids directly in the base of my brain, and using it as a teaching moment. Students gathered around my hospital bed onlooking, knowing that any wrong move could strike the wrong spot and, well, that wouldn’t end well. All of that was manageable, it was the right of passage in a situation that demanded this kind of diagnostic effort and treatment while having no answers. 

What broke my heart more, was that when I maxed out my sick days, I was left feeling useless to my organization. 

Uncared for. 

Damaged goods. 

I have never felt so underappreciated and it changed my entire relationship and career trajectory as this became a benchmark consideration as to how long I felt I should stay. How long they deserved my talent as one of the hardest working people there. I do not say that to glorify myself, I say it because if this is how you treat your top performers, then honestly somethings gotta give. 

“According to Gallup’s analysis, 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 days. At any given company, it’s not uncommon for employees to feel that their best efforts are routinely ignored. Further, employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.”

— Gallup, “Employee Recognition: Low Cost, High Impact”

I recommend that leaders care deeply, and express that care and appreciation not just when things are good, but also when things are bad. Let your workforce know why you value them and when they are down, find ways to pick them up with your words, encouragement and, gratitude for their efforts. 

From annual events like Harvard Heros to Nectar, Bonusly, Fond, or any other software that helps daily to drive reward programs organization-wide, recognition can be done in many ways. For me, it’s all about communication, frequency, and most of all how authentically it’s done. 

Here are a few simple ways that leaders and employees alike can tackle appreciation;

1. Express appreciation on the way not just when you get to the destination.

The journey is long, and most people since the pandemic hit, have not been able to exercise their go-to activities to recharge and reset. Travel is a mess, restrictions are rampant and a lot of us have information fatigue. Finish lines feel further and further away. It’s a rough time to look to the future and the constantly moving goalposts, hoping that you will get there and only then feel like you are appreciated. Start applauding the effort now. Lift your teams up for how they are handling sometimes impossible situations that are unprecedented in nature.

It takes a lot to stay calm in a crisis, or work at home remotely with a family exploding in the space where you are meant to focus. There is a lot of uncertainty, new means of adapting, and a lot of people doing their very best. We are beings driven first and far most by emotions in our survival brain. There has been so much fear, and that has to be noted. But, what beats fear by a long shot, is appreciation. Fear vibrates at a frequency of around 100Hz, appreciation is estimated at a soaring and energizing 800+ Hz. Im sure you can figure out which one is depleting and which one is empowering. Feed your team the right fuel

2. Speak to a person’s specific impact instead of just generic feedback.

If you were doing your absolute best, actually, you were going above and beyond, would you like to hear; “Well done Joe, good job.”? Or would you rather hear, “Joe, this month was tough to hit certain targets, and even in the last 72 hours of the cycle you never stopped giving it your all. It’s shown immensely in this quarter’s numbers. Seriously, well done.”

What you choose to say matters, what you highlight becomes a new focus point. If you want to see more out of your employees, express appreciation in the areas where you want to see it and watch what happens. 

3. We are not in the business of gaslighting. Don’t fake flattery, mean what you say and say what you mean.

It’s better to green-light people when good, and red-light people when needed. No one expects praise for a poorly done job. You can still appreciate the very real position an employee is in that may have led to this less than commendable performance. You can say, “I appreciate that you are new, or have been burnt out, or have some very difficult personal circumstances at home, but I would also like to give some feedback where I think we can get improved results. I appreciate you have been trying, but, we really need to work on a few things for this business to thrive.” Starting a conversation this way, appreciating the fundamental contributors to outcomes and then moving from that place of understanding can create a much healthier and more driven workforce. One that feels supported with constructive criticism instead of rigid reprimand that leaves one discouraged and resentful. 

4. Share recognition in meaningful ways.

We are species designed to excel from esteem as best documented by American Psychologist, Abraham Maslow’s in his Hierarchy of Human Needs. It’s not about ego, ok it is a little. People feel proud when they can flaunt their wins, and we are a sharing species. Our brain’s development has given us the cognitive faculties to express ourselves, engage with others, emotionally intertwine, connect through sharing and so much more. There is nothing like recognition and appreciation to get our brains firing off dopamine, the ultimate reward molecule. Whether it be an appreciation day, an awarded half-day off, a bonus of some sort, even a little badge for an email signature, having something to show does help teams to get motivated to do praise-worthy work. 

5. Create a culture of lateral appreciation not just top-down.

Encourage teams to appreciate each other so that it not always only on the leaders to dish out the gratitude. People need to be seen, applauded for, and cherished. It doesn’t mean they only need that from the CEO, they just need it in general. The higher the place the praise comes from the better, but we know it’s not always possible. A job well done deserves to be commended, I am sure a person will opt to receive any praise rather than no praise. 

Most companies run some kind of employee-recognition programs, but often they fall flat, wasting resources. Many become just another box for managers to check or are seen as elite opportunities for a favored few, leaving the rest of the workforce feeling left out. Meanwhile, a lot of individual managers also fail to adequately express appreciation, mistakenly assuming that reports know how they feel or struggling to balance gratitude with developmental feedback. In focus groups and interviews, however, employees reveal that making them feel valued and recognized isn’t all that complicated: It mostly comes down to a lot of small, commonsense practices.”  

— Harvard Business Review, The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated” 

In a time when mental health has never been more important, a little appreciation can go a long way in diffusing some of the hardships people are facing and lighten the weight of the world that they are carrying on their shoulders.

Not everyone is going to be vulnerable enough to let you know their struggles, but feeling appreciated can help them to feel like they are doing well, and that can be the one thing they need to be able to keep going and start thriving. 

It costs nothing to be kind, and it can result in workforce greatness when you are appreciative in meaningful, descriptive, and deserved ways. 

Try it and see what happens, I’d appreciate it. 

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