The Lost Art of Appreciation

The research firm Towers Watson recently released a fascinating study on employee engagement, appreciation, and job satisfaction.  Their findings are summarized as follows:

“The single highest driver of engagement, according to a worldwide study conducted by Towers Watson, is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their wellbeing. Less than 40 percent of workers felt so engaged.” (source: HBR)

“Engagement” in this sense refers to a sense of authentic connection and commitment to one’s job and to one’s purpose as an employee.  It means you’re not a cog in a wheel.  That you’re more that a function.  That what you do matters.  Less than half felt it did.

These results beg the question: Can a manager be considered a “good” businessperson if the majority of his team feels both unappreciated and therefore unengaged?  Can any business sustain the growth and innovation needed to be competitive in today’s market–in any field–if the employees are ‘phoning in’ their jobs every day?  Most would argue ‘no’ and I’ll agree.  Business is dynamic these days.  The mandate to be innovative has never been greater and the speed with which a company is expected to innovate has never been faster.  It simply cannot make sense to have a team of employees that don’t care because they don’t feel cared for.

This isn’t ‘Manager Bashing Day’ by any stretch of the imagination.  Managers have some of the toughest, and most replaceable jobs, in any company.  It’s a role that’s often treated in stark terms.  But if the Towers Watson report illustrates one thing it’s that managers, like people, are often times more comfortable highlighting the negatives in their staff rather than the positive.  Business can be difficult, I get that.  But then the question quickly becomes: ‘Does spending time highlighting the things in business that suck actually improve results?’

Appreciation.  A simple idea that’s tougher to implement that one might think.  For many managers the mindful act of appreciating an employee isn’t part of a daily practice.  But it should be.  People want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.  A cause.  A purpose.  A battlecry.  Appreciation is the small affirmation that holds a person together during bad times and reinforces their efforts during the good.  If you’ve ever sat in a cubicle all day then you know exactly what I mean.

Appreciation prevents a person from having an Existential Employee Crisis: “What I do is meaningless.  What we do is meaningless.  What this company stands for is nothing.”  Now THAT is a terrible feeling.

So how does one begin to improve his skills in demonstrating sincere appreciation to others?  It’s not that hard, but it’s a new set of activities.  And like any, they need to be done regularly.  As such:

1.  Empathy.  Spend more time considering a person’s position and values.  What’s it like to do their job?  What if you had to do it every day?  What if your family’s livelihood in part depended on it?  And what if they fail at something?  How does this impact them?

2. Practice on your own life.  It’s funny how infrequently we actually express appreciation for the things we have–regardless of how big or small.  Yet it’s one of the easiest ways to create an Appreciation Habit.  Start with yourself.

3. The Take for Granted/Take Away Test.  Stop taking your employees for granted.  Ask yourself: ‘What do I take for granted or what do I assume about my team?’  If you take something for granted then you’re overlooking an opportunity to share appreciation.  Next, ask yourself: “What would happen if this person simply stopped doing the things that I do take for granted?”  Then what would happen?  Again, appreciate people that do the things you’ve grown accustomed to assuming will always be there.

4. Be specific.  There’s a big difference between a general “Thanks for being part of our team” and a specific appreciation directed at a specific action.  Blanket types of appreciation are fine, but people like meaningful specifics more.  It shows that a manager pays attention, observes, and cares enough to notice the details.  It shows that you’re engaged.  And when a manager is engaged the employee is more likely to be engaged as well.

Sitting here writing this I’m struck by how simple these things sound.  I’m also struck by how infrequently they’re actually done in a workplace.  A company cannot exist on the ego or ‘Will’ of a manager or leadership team.  Engaged employees produce better products, are happier people, and will not be as inclined to leave the job for greener pastures.

So start small, stay focused, and tell the people that work for you how, why, when, and what about their work you appreciate.  And do it on the regular!

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