Appreciation at Work: Two Major Misconceptions Leaders Hold

“Appreciation” has become a major buzz word in many workplaces -- to the point that there have been numerous commercials in the media boasting “we appreciate you” (often in the context of employees addressing customers).

Related: 20 Rewards Your Employees -- and Budget -- Will Love   

Recently, the emphasis has been on employee recognition, and has included published materials, seminars and commitments by companiest to help leaders and managers recognize their team members for work well done. In fact, experts in human resource management estimate that 90 percent of all U.S. businesses and organizations have some form of employee recognition program.

But the problem is -- in terms of helping employees feeling truly valued and appreciated -- that employee recognition programs have failed. 

While these programs have proliferated, the level of employee engagement in job satisfaction has actually declined over the same time period. This is largely because most employee recognition activities are generic (everyone gets the same award, in contrast to being recognized individually and personally). Accordingly, they come across as inauthentic.

The solution as been a new focus on authentic, personal appreciation. And while individualized appreciation represents progress, many leaders still hold two major misconceptions concerning appreciation. 

Misconception #1: The primary goal of communicating appreciation is to make employees feel good.

This belief seems to be held more frequently by cynical individuals, who disparage all appreciation as being "touchy- feely crap." “Work is about getting things done," their mantra says. "I don’t care how people feel about it.” 

Unfortunately, there is some basis for this belief. In today's world of encouragement and positive thinking, some well-meaning individuals have pushed the emphasis on appreciation toward a goal of “making everyone happy.” There are even (misguided) proponents for the practice of creating “chief happiness officers” in the workplace.

As a psychologist, I can assert that this will inevitably be a failed endeavor. If it ever gets off the ground, the focus of making others happy will crash and burn quickly. Why? Because no one can make anyone else happy. (We actually can’t even make ourselves happy!) Happiness is a result of other positive habits in our lives.

Even if we narrow our focus to helping people “feel good,” attaining this second goal will also fail. We now know that our feelings essentially result according to whether our expectations are met in “real life.” If they are met, we are pleased; if not, we become frustrated, angry or disappointed. Although we all can assist people in learning to adjust their expectations more closely to something approaching reality, no one can make anyone else feel anything.

Related: Treat Your Employees Well -- They Are Your Best Brand Ambassadors

Misconception #2: The primary purpose of communicating appreciation is to increase productivity.

A second mistaken belief about communicating appreciation in the workplace has grown out of a distorted view of recognition. When recognition experts and researchers began to share the positive financial benefits that occur when people feel valued, business leaders excited about the results started focusing primarily on the fiscal aspects.

There is good reason for this: Research has consistently demonstrated a strong return on investment in response to employees being recognized and feeling appreciated. That ROI includes: 

  • increased daily attendance (not a small factor for retail stores and fast food restaurants)
  • decreased tardiness
  • employees following policies and procedures more faithfully
  • reduced conflict among staff
  • increased productivity (in some work settings)
  • higher customer satisfaction ratings. 

These benefits add up to a cost savings for companies, and make them more competitive in the marketplace. In fact, high staff turnover has been shown to be the single greatest nonproductive cost to businesses. 

But when the purpose of appreciation is driven primarily (or in some cases, solely) by financial factors, the game changes. The issue moves into the arena of manipulation and the display of certain behaviors for ulterior, selfish motives.

Hence, in the world of employee recognition, a huge “push back” from employees (and some managers) is occurring. Cynicism and resentment are two of the most common responses from employees who believe employers implement recognition activities primarily to increase productivity and boost profits for the company (or bonuses for their managers). 

The true purpose for communicating appreciation

What then is the real purpose of communicating appreciation for those with whom you work? Ultimately, this is a personal issue for each individual: Why do I communicate a sense of appreciation to my colleagues? 

Multiple reasons exist, including some that are self-serving, but foundationally appreciation for colleagues communicates a sense of respect and value for the person.

An important factor to note is that the appreciation tendered doesn’t always have to be for the work employees do. Yes, we can appreciate their skills, talents and abilities and how they help make the company (department, or you) more effective and successful. But people are more than production units. Employees have more value than just what is measured and how much they “get done.” 

Some individuals can be appreciated for just “who they are” -- their personality, demeanor or other qualities. For example, some add a brightness to the office because of their cheerfulness and positive outlook. Others are appreciated for their calm ability to think through issues in the midst of a crisis. And some are respected for what they do outside of work -- a single mother committed to her family, an individual who gives a lot to the community through volunteerism or someone who demonstrates self-discipline by training for a marathon.

Conclusion

Having an accurate understanding of the concept of appreciation and its role in successful organizations is important for leaders. Some of them mistakenly believe that appreciation is about “making people feel good.” But pursuing this as a primary goal will fail since no one can “make” anyone else feel something.

Research has shown that when employees feel valued and appreciated, good results occur, often with positive financial benefits for the organization. However, when managers or leaders attempt to use recognition and appreciation to achieve secondary financial gains, they play a risky game of manipulation which can seriously undermine trust in work relationships.

The foundation of authentic appreciation is respecting and valuing employees for who they are as people, in addition to the contributions they make to the organization. When appreciation is communicated from this perspective, all stakeholders win: the employee, the supervisor, the organization, customers and clients, as well as the family and friends of the employee who get to enjoy a more positive, encouraged individual.

Related: 7 Ways to Say I Love You