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!

How do you measure happiness?  It’s a fascinating question and one that blends psychology, neuroscience, economics, and other interdisciplinary measures.  Happiness research has also been finding favor among business types in the last few years as people attempt to determine exactly what makes us happy and if there is some fixed measurement to rank an individual’s happiness.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert recently published an articled entitled “The Science Behind the Smile.”  In it he argues that our assumptions about things that make us happy or unhappy, and the causal factors behind these things, are largely misunderstood or simply incorrect.  One might assume, for example, that purchasing a new home or taking that dream vacation will make us very happy.  And by contrast, that losing a job or a relationship will have equally damning effects on our attitude.  Mr. Gilbert’s research and conclusions, however, reveal the fleeting and rather superficial nature of both emotional conditions.

Turns out, happiness (and unhappiness) are temporary states that need to be reinforced or avoided accordingly.  For example, a twoweek trip to Bora Bora may make you radically happy.  But this happiness will not sustain itself.  It will last, best case scenario, for about three months.  Just long enough for the water cooler conversations to subside and the digital photos to be archived in your Flickr or Instagram account.  The same is true for other happy events: the start of a new romance, purchasing a home, professional achievement.  You’ll get about a three month improvement in your overall happiness.  The same time frame holds true for negative events.  You lose a job.  A relationship falls apart.  A big project is scratched.  You’ll be unhappy for about three months.  And then it subsides.

So what sustains Happiness?  That really is the question.  How do we keep it going?  The answer cannot be financial, as most of us would go broke trying to buy and buy and buy the next new shiny toy.  Ironically, Gilbert’s findings illustrate that consumerism is actually a double-edged sword.  In as much as it’s gratifying most of us realize that it’s not sustainable and, in worst cases, it can cause a depression all its own.  The answer cannot be simply interpersonal.  If that were the case we’d most likely be in the habit of building, destroying, and building new relationships three or four times a year.  So that’s a no-go.  The answer, turns out, is much simpler than that.

Doing ‘Good.’  That’s the secret to sustaining happiness.  ‘Good’ in this sense is obviously an abstract noun.  And although ‘Good’ is different for each of us, we all know what it means.  As the Greeks wrote:  ‘And what is good, Phaedrus,/And what is not good–/Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  ‘Good.’  Immutable and right.  Gilbert concludes that doing Good on a consistent basis: our best efforts, helping others, unrequited generosity, reciprocity, and health are the only ways to consistently reinforce happiness on a Life level.  These actions not only create habits but reinforce an understanding that we are capable of best efforts for ourselves and for the people in our lives.

“Doing” is a verb, and should be treated as such.  “Thinking” good thoughts is important.  “Feeling” good is a by-product.  “Believing” in good is a matter of hope and faith.  But “Doing” Good means there is action.  And action is tangible.  Proof that we can positively impact ourselves and others.  It is a manifestation of our best qualities.  This manifestation, this “doing” represents our finest selves (imperfect as they may be) and is the first step towards generating and sustaining Happiness.

So without oversimplifying anything, Do Some Good.  Do Something That Matters.  I think you know what I mean.  To the best within you.

The Happiness Re-Wire

What is happiness?  You know when you’re happy–it’s a very circumstantial emotion.  You also know what makes you happy.  For some people it’s a trip to the mall.  For others it’s an unexpected call from a friend.  But what about the ‘why.’  Why are we happy when we’re happy?  It’s a question that Harvard scholar Shawn Achor spent nearly 10 years researching. His work examined brain chemistry, psychology, sociological factors, and personal habits that impact happiness.  And here’s what Shawn and his team concluded:  You can rewire your brain for happiness.

Imagine what this means.  You can re-wire your brain so that you’re fundamentally more happy.  A happier you. Every day.  Although I will surely advise you to do your own research on Mr. Achor I can cut to the chase for the sake of the blog: certain activities that are conducted over the course of 21 days will re-wire the ‘happiness’ function in your brain by causing greater dopamine production/release.  In other words, 21 days of ‘happy’ behaviors create a chemical reward system that wants to be reinforced.  I’m 4 days in to this program and I’m excited to see the results.  The very very worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have done some good along the way.  Here’s how the program breaks out: You have to complete the following 5 activities for 21 days:

1) 3 ‘thank you’s’ to people in your life, circles, work, etc.  This has been fascinating.  I’ve now sent 12 ‘thank you’s’ to people and have a 100% return on “Awwww, thank you!’ in return.  It’s amazing.

2) 1 journal entry of something that is good in your life.  Here’s my note for the day: “Mink oil reminds of my dad, and how he used to rub it in to my baseball gloves, ski gloves, and everything that was leather–always.”

3) Meditate.  This is challenging for some.  Meditation is about being quiet.  Breathing.  Focused unfocus.  It’s a beautifully relaxing exercise.  Turn off the phone, turn off the computer, find a quiet place and say a few “Om.”

4) Exercise.  Not much to say about this.  It helps you relax and releases all sorts of stress

5) Random or Not Random Act of Kindness.  I love this.  Do something unexpected for either a person you know or a person you don’t.  So far I’ve filled up a gas tank, put $15 bucks worth of food in a food bank, bought a back pack for a student, and bought some groceries for a person in need.  It doesn’t have to be a big expenditure but it feels great helping others in need.  It’s just rewarding.

According to Mr. Achor the result of doing these 5 things for 21 days is a dopamine increase in your body and a general re-wire in terms of how happy you are.  Just imagine.

And here’s added benefit: Mr. Achor’s research states that happier people are 31% more productive than folks that are either ‘normal’ or ‘depressed.’  So in the process of helping others you’ll help yourself!

Give it a go–be happy.  You deserve it.  .

The Thank You Note

I’m in the media business.  Let’s just get that on the table.  I’m not an ad man’ per se.  It’s something my company does.  I’d like to think that what I do has meaning beyond demographics, impressions, creatives, campaigns.  Advertising has changed, or at least, is slowly changing.  We’ve seen ‘the social media revolution’ roll in with its own irrepressible energy.  We’ve seen newspapers become digitized.  QR  codes that are richly engaging.  Website people throw around words like “sticky” these days.  It’s all very chic.  But what happened to just nice, person-to-person, friend-to-friend relationships?

There’s always going to be a better mousetrap.  And people in business love to go through “shiny new toy” syndrome–romancing and fondling that nifty task management software or that next “killer app.”  Yet there was a time, not that long ago, when what mattered more than anything were simpler ideals: gratitude, appreciation, reciprocity, being “good people.” That worked.  It might have worked too well.  Because like most things that prove themselves successful they’re quickly set aside–taken for granted as always having been there, always working, a trusted friend–and now let’s give it a rest.  We can supplant these angels of our character for faster and fancier medium.  Yet we cannot lose sight of their transcendent ability to connect us on a meaningful level.  And that’s what matters.

The Thank You Note is about connections, attitudes, habits, ways of thinking and living that are first and foremost designed to highlight our best characteristics.  In life and in business, these are the qualities that bring us together.  These are the qualities that last.

Cheers, Matt