Five Tips to Foster a Culture of Appreciation

user Alia Ayer

When’s the last time you openly celebrated the achievements of a team member? A week ago? A month? Can’t recall? The norm we offer for how frequently team members need to receive appreciation to see an increase in the positive side effects of productivity, quality and trust is “every seven days.” The leaders we work with respond with surprise and disbelief.  Every seven days feels like such a big disconnect from the reality of their own habits and cultural norms in their organizations. If I look at my own actions as a leader, I see missed opportunities to deliver morale-boosting, performance-enhancing words that cost nothing other than the thoughtfulness to make it meaningful to that individual. According to research by Gallup last year, only one in three workers in the U.S. and Germany strongly agreed that they received recognition or praise in the past seven days for doing good work. Those who disagreed were twice as likely to say they would quit in the year ahead. Go further and combine regular individual praise with collective acknowledgment for team results and there is an additional pay-off. Gallup found that 74% of employees “have the feeling that what [they are] doing at work is valuable and useful” when the work of their team is celebrated. It contributes to a sense of meaning and purpose. In the war for talent, we are overlooking something that’s free and makes an immediate difference – the gift of appreciation.

Here are some tips for fostering a culture of appreciation: 

1. Acknowledge accomplishments right away

When it comes to performance management when something goes awry, all the energy is directed toward real-time feedback. But is the same true of accomplishment? A well-crafted response to a customer, a creative idea that led to a new approach, or a well-facilitated internal meeting – these are all opportunities to provide more than just a “good job.” They are moments ripe for real-time congratulations and connecting the action to the impact they had. 

2. A personal quality + specific impact 

The best appreciation is both specific and sincere. It highlights a unique individual quality, value or skill and ties it directly to the specific personal, team or business impact. In a recent meeting, a client shared an update in the first half that required a quick pivot for the second half based on the new data. One of my team members was quick on her feet and deftly made real-time adjustments to the plan. Afterwards I offered this feedback: “You demonstrated such skill in pivoting based on new data. I observed your strength of adaptability in action. You handled the change with calm, confidence and brought others along with you.” If you start to overthink the formula (personal quality + specific impact), it can become a barrier for providing appreciation. Alternatively, if you adopt it as your go-to move, you start to build a regular habit of noticing the connection between the strengths of your team members and their everyday actions.

3. Understand appreciation preferences

Forum matters. If you deliver the appreciation publicly to a team member who is embarrassed by public recognition, it can get lost or have a negative effect. I once had a team member who was an avid gift giver. Occasionally a tiny package arrived with a note and a gift. Knowing this was her “appreciation language” was an unlock for me and broadened my appreciation portfolio! Asking each team member how they like to be appreciated is a way to practice empathy and connect with your people. Dr. Gary Chapman, who brought us The Five Love Languages, devotes his newest book to The Five Languages of Appreciation

4. Recognize steadiness and consistency 

Not everyone on your team has a job with big milestones. Some team members keep things running in ways that you only appreciate when things break down. This often behind-the-scenes steadiness and on-top-it-ness from monthly payroll and office supply orders to scheduling and social media posts happens in a timely manner without fanfare or request for recognition. Find out who is doing their job so well and acknowledge them. 

5. Write an appreciation note

At the end of a recent leadership development program with the Top 50 leaders of a retail company, we asked each leader to pen a note of appreciation to a team member. We take out phones and do it right there in the moment! One of the leaders in my group was hesitant to use appreciation as part of his toolkit. He feared it would be seen as insincere – “they made me do it” – and anticipated a dismissive response from the recipient. Afterwards, he reached out to share how shocked he was by the warm response he received. It even included appreciation for him! This simple gesture in under 10 minutes – done with specificity, authenticity and the vulnerability to trust that his appreciation may or may not be received (and being okay with that) – changed the tenor of an otherwise transactional 1:1 relationship. In raising the spirits of your team, you raise your own! Slack works too. Putting pen to paper, now that’s an even more meaningful move for the big moments. 

Make appreciation a habit

What regular and specific appreciation shows more than anything else is a leader’s attentiveness — attentiveness to the complex or just plain essential nature of the work that is being done and the people who are committed to doing it.  A little positivity connects to purpose, productivity, and well-being and boosts your own mood in the process. Isn’t that a leadership habit worth building? Maybe something to add on the calendar for the week ahead?

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