Appreciation at workplace

I was talking to someone from my last company and this came up: why is it that I don’t get appreciated when I do a good job, but no one forgets to blame me when something goes wrong?

It definitely sounded familiar to me: in every company I have worked so far, I have heard this complaint from my peers, my reports (yes, I am guilty too) and from me. And when broached this topic with people around me, I got similar comments of not getting as much appreciation as they would like and getting more blame and problems than they can handle.

Wikipedia defines appreciation (or gratitude): “A positive emotion or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive. According to University of California-Davis researcher, Robert Davis, gratitude requires three conditions: a gracious individual must behave in a way that was 1) costly to him or her, 2) valuable to the recipient, and 3) intentionally rendered”

I looked around to see if a motivated manager can find the resources necessary to do a good job, and I could find plenty. There is a lot to be found on Internet: on the importance of recognition (couple of HBR blogs on recognition and praise) and benefits of it (see power of appreciation and appreciation boosting morale), as well as on how to do a good job on this (art of giving praise and giving recognition effectively). Of course, tips on how to give appreciation abound too (25 Ways to Reward Employees, Top Ten Ways, meaningful recognition).

I am a firm believer of the power of intrinsic motivation to deliver great quality and productivity (couple of great resources on the subject: surprising science of motivation and behavioral economics of Intrinsic motivation). Appreciation (right ones) appeals to the core of those intrinsic motivations and hence can be very powerful. In addition, based on my personal experience at receiving (and not receiving!) appreciation, as well as at giving appreciation, genuine and heart-felt appreciation does wonders to your work relationships and creates mutual trust and respect that goes a long way in improving team productivity and morale.

So what is the problem? Why don’t we find it as prevalent in organizations as it should be?

Here are some of the reasons I have seen, that stop managers from appreciating someone:

  • False sense of fairness – “If I appreciate someone, others will think I am being unfair to them“. Managers get into this trap too often, and end up not appreciating anyone’s good work. Rather than looking at the positive side of it (if the team is good, and manager is doing a good job at recognizing good work, he/she will end up praising everyone), they look at negative side of it and cause more damage.
  • Lack of involvement –”I don’t have time to know all the details about all the work, especially ones going on well“. Appreciation of the type ‘thanks a lot for great work’ doesn’t help and many managers know it. To be effective, they need to be specific. However, being that specific requires spending more time with the project and know enough details, not every manager has this time, and so they hesitate.
  • Lack of appreciation skills – “Should I send a thank-you mail, or should I go buy flowers for him?” Managers understand that appreciation done in a wrong way can be worse than no appreciation at all since appreciation can backfire too (see this for a good read on the topic). However, not every manager is comfortable in their knowledge of how to do appreciation the right way (like any other skill, this requires training and practice). This can put them in a bind and they end up not doing anything at all.
  • Skewed prioritization – “I have too many problems to solve today, I will send an appreciation note tomorrow“. Appreciation requires effort. Most of the time, benefits of appreciation are intangible, long-term and hard to quantify, which makes many managers prioritize this below the immediate and urgent work items whose results are more quantifiable and immediate. And given the fact that most managers have more work than time, they never get around to doing a low priority work like appreciation.
  • Organizational culture – “This is not the time to celebrate or praise, let’s continue to fix our problems and be the best org“. Many organizations are ‘continuous improvement focused’, which means they focus a lot on identifying inefficiencies in the system, structure and people, and work to fix them. Such a focus on problems do not allow managers to hone their skills of identifying good work (since they never look for it). Also, such a culture typically reward managers more for finding problems and solving them (tangible and measurable) rather than motivating and appreciating employees to create a happier workforce (intangible and non-measurable).

I have learned a lot over past few years as I came around to understand the value of appreciating and being appreciated. When I researched some of the articles and other blogs, it was good to see my thoughts reaffirmed by them and I learned much more in the process:

So here is my summary of things to keep in mind when appreciating someone:

  • Be specific: This is the most important one. Appreciation of type “I really liked the way you approached the problem and could debug it on your own and find the problem in less than 24 hours! Thanks for being so responsive to our most important customer” is way more effective and memorable than “Thanks for a great job for our most important customer“. This shows you took effort to understand the work and also this shows exactly which part of the work you are appreciating.
  • Look for opportunities to appreciate – Sometimes the manager sets the bar of appreciation so high that no one meets it. However, appreciation is also needed when the individual thinks they did a good job. So sometimes managers have to look for opportunities to appreciate rather than waiting to be wowed.
  • Timeliness – Appreciate as soon as you notice the act, rather than wait for right or better time. Timeliness reinforces the right behavior by associating the appreciation with the work done (especially when it is specific). Stale appreciation is easily forgotten and definitely loses its impact.
  • Understand your team: People have different views on how they like to be appreciated. Some like being appreciated in private 1-1 setting. Others like to be recognized in front of their peers. Some may want money to go with it, others may hate it if you mention money for a job well done (see behavioral economics of Intrinsic motivation for why it might be so)
  • Be truthful and honest – Appreciation that is not genuine and heart-felt is worse than no appreciation because it hurts manager’s credibility and manager can end up losing trust and respect (‘phony’ is not a good word to be associated with).
  • Behave the way you feel: Appreciate by action too, not only by words. Appreciating someone for displaying good leadership and vision, and then never involving them in ongoing work requiring leadership and vision sends a strong message that the appreciation was a mere lip service.

I will be interested in hearing your comments on this topic – how you see these issues and solutions play out in your workplace, when was the last time you felt appreciated, and what you do to appreciate your peer or reports.

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