You say “Thank you”. What they hear is “Please accept my standard, HR protocol-approved format for acknowledging your most recent activity that was intended to bring me value. The act of expressing these words are purely my own in a personal capacity and the organization may not necessarily subscribe to it. I will also appreciate it if you resumed work with immediate effect now, without lingering too much on the possible implications of these words as they are - certainly in letter and largely in spirit - routine and perfunctory”. Yes, the gap. It exists. It can be worse than a bout of Chinese Whisper. And it is certainly more common than you think. In this article, we look at the nuances of appreciation in the workplace.
Despite their best intentions, when managers and bosses give a pat-on-the-back to a team member who has excelled at the job, it can be interpreted as a ‘routine round’ - just another box on the checklist that needs to be ticked by 6 o’ clock. The reverse is equally true. A worker may be perfectly happy receiving a simple ‘Thank you’ note, but the giver may hesitate under the misconception that it will be perceived as a meaningless, clinical ‘process’.
Interestingly, there is a third permutation to the picture as well: A supervisor (or peer) may NOT do or say anything but make the sense of appreciation perfectly clear via non-verbal means, body language or gestures. So except the fourth combination (where a ‘Thank you’ is neither expressed not intended), we can see that there can be a complicated criss-cross of emotional nuance and semantic innuendo flying through the air in a workplace at any given point of time - depending on how you express appreciation, and how it is received.
Adding to the riddle is the illusion of transparency : A theory proposing that humans are prone to thinking that their deportment and conduct is sufficiently transparent to help the environment get a fair sense of what they are thinking and feeling. In other words, the ‘message’ behind that “Thank you” is transmitted exactly as originally intended – wrapped in genuine gratefulness for the value received (assuming, of course, that it is indeed the case). This, of course, isn’t the reality a lot of the time.
Completing this cycle of opacity is the fact that managers and bosses are perpetually foxed about the precise method of articulating their feelings and expressing their appreciation.
The ‘perfect way’ - one that wouldn’t send out mixed signals and would capture exactly what they felt – is, according to most of us, a fairly complicated and specialized task best delegated to HR folks. Who, ironically, may be nurturing a similar state of bafflement.
According to Talent Thought Leader Pamela Stroko, “People want to know they matter and they want to be treated as people. That’s the new talent contract.”
Acknowledgement of one’s contribution (appreciation and recognition) – along with incentives (rewards and compensation) – is amongst the principal pillars of a motivated and productive workforce. Stats and studies proving the connection between the two are plentiful.
An American study shows that doubling the number of employees who receive regular and adequate recognition can lead to a happy snowball avalanche : 24% rise in (output) quality, 27% reduction in absenteeism and 10% reduction in shrinkage.
Another exercise revealed that 84% of employees who were powerfully engaged and went the extra mile at work experienced some kind of appreciation or recognition (relative to just 25% of ‘Actively Disengaged’ employees)… that 70% of workers agreed their morale would get a ‘massive’ boost if they got more ‘Thank You!’s from their supervisors…. And that the percentage of workplaces that recognized the performance of their employees (and had more engaged workers) - vis a vis those that didn’t - was 71:41.
Despite the mountain of evidence confirming that (A) a worker who has received recognition of some kind, be it a silent moment of gratitude or flashy prizes, is (B) a happier worker (C) is a more efficient worker, the gap remains.
In an American survey, 82% of employees didn’t feel that they were being recognized sufficiently for what they do. The bigger question however is this: Were the managers in these surveys really being mean and niggardly with their ‘Bravo!’s and ‘Well Done!’s, or just handicapped in the communication department? Was it a case of wanting to but not being able to? It could well be.
Psychology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Expressing emotion in a frank and genuine way – without holding back or delaying the moment - can be a tricky affair (and a fine line to toe) at the best of times. At higher levels, it is squarely a professional’s job.
So what about the rest of us? Is it possible to simplify the nuts and bolts of employee appreciation and scrunch the big lessons in a compact, easy-to-follow guide? In a way, that is exactly what the objective of this exercise is.
While perhaps not a comprehensive Guide (do stay tuned for that too!), the idea here is to handpick, decode and list out some simple techniques and tactics that anyone can practise at work. And engage the teams, channels and extended networks by articulating appreciation instantly, successfully and consistently.
Here we go, then.
A simple ‘Howdy?’ or ‘All good?’ as you check into work in the morning can often be just enough to make workers feel acknowledged and buoyed. It may feel like a chore in the beginning (especially if it’s not a part of the culture), but the good part is that the feeling will soon morph into a pleasant habit you will grow to look forward to everyday.
Employees say in studies that this simple gesture can be as meaningful for them as formal recognition. As a happy bonus, it doubles up as a ‘guerrilla social listening tool’ and ‘dipstick mood survey’ for leaders, helping supervisors stay in the loops and grapevines of all that’s happening in the barracks.
A dry memo or a regulation email is about as inspiring as a slow internet connection or listening to a politician’s address. So when you are about to dole out ‘yet another regulation brief’ that features the same tasks and asks, stop. And try to ‘mix things up’ and make it special. While you don’t need to be as dramatic as “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” from Mission Impossible, you can certainly add context, colour and personalization.
Tell the employee why the gig has come to him or her specifically and not someone else : Such as, for example, they did a great job of it last time or that, according to you, no one can do greater justice to the spirit of the project. Show them that their opinion about the task matters greatly by enquiring how much time they think they might need for it (nevermind that the company manual spells it out in great detail). Find out whether they need any extra help or hands. And leave with a warm reminder that they can approach you anytime for support. You have not only given the project a truly awesome start (arguably more potent than cracking a coconut) - you have also lifted morale to ensure a better outcome, and perhaps won for yourself a good friend.
A good word from the same boss – while necessary and awesome - can get predictable (or, worse, feel ‘staged’) after a while. Try to look out for positive mentions from other sources like peers, clients and extended channels and networks too. If someone has appreciated a team member in a mail or over a text message, be quick to pass it on.
You can do this publicly or choose to be more discreet and convey it in private, depending on your assessment of the situation and the personas involved. Either way though, by communicating that the worker is truly making an impact, you have given the ego a delicious massage (don’t we all need it sometimes) – something that is bound to show in vibe, mindset and yes, even quality of work.
The workplace isn’t a drone factory manned by clones. It’s not where you clock in a fixed number of hours doing exactly what you did yesterday. At its best, it’s a playground where we must be teased constantly to bring out our hidden talents, punch above our weight once in a while and experience the thrill of trying ‘new stuff’. Give your workers an opportunity to do all that. While humdrum tasks and unglamorous routines must remain the bread-and-butter of a business, do keep an eye open for opportunities when you can spice up ‘grunt-chores’.
For instance, you can weave in a fresh angle or KPI - or let folks apply their talents in a different department or lateral function - that doesn’t just made the work day interesting but allows the worker to learn something new, broaden the skill-set and contribute to the company bottom-line in unique and novel ways. The mere act of challenging someone shows that deep down, you believe that they have it in them to achieve the goal, and that in itself is enough appreciation.
When appreciation comes in the form of incentives and rewards, it adds an extra layer of zing to the equation, and authenticity to the employee-employer premise and promise. There are some thumb rules to keep in mind when you plan to shower your workers with ovation and accolade in tangible form (incentives) like prizes and gifts. For one thing, make it ASAP before the vibe grows cold so that you can take advantage of the ‘magic of the moment’. Incentive delayed, after all, is incentive denied. The other is to personalize it.
Make sure the reward matches – at some level – to either the special talent and distinct personality of the individual, or has a quirky connection with the task or project in question. This will tell them that you are aware (and greatly value) their special abilities and skills, and have taken the trouble of stepping beyond the standard gift-list to find something truly appropriate. The other critical element to plan is whether you should make this a public or private affair: If there is no particular reason for choosing the latter route, go ahead and make a meal of it by planning an ‘evening with the guys’ that lets everyone catch up over the reward ceremony, recharge sparks and rekindle bonds. Finally, do make the gift or incentive commensurate with the occasion: A realty rockstar who has just sold a mansion in the country deserves more than a pizza voucher, and an Account Development Manager who has finally cracked a VIP category will expect more than a free haircut at the neighborhood salon. Be involved enough to be tasteful, thoughtful and meaningful when picking and choosing your rewards.
It is a workplace habit that must be enforced top down by the leadership. Review your rewards policy frequently, keep it ‘real’, be generous in dispensing praises and plaudits - and you could be pleasantly surprised at the big shifts your small gestures of appreciation are ushering at work.
By enabling unique channels of communication (be it a virtual Heads-up or an impromptu party) between workers, by motivating teams and extended networks (gig workers, channel partners, dealers, call centres and BPOs) through timely and accurate incentives, and by letting you pick the right reward for your organization’s rockstars (from a wide and bespoke range of gifts, branded currency, perks, vouchers and cards), Xoxoday Empuls helps you close the appreciation gap. And take a big leap forward.