Illustration by Olenka Malarecka
Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

It’s time to reevaluate the balance between recognition and appreciation

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Published on August 21, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

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Like anybody else who has ever had a job, a manager, and the most fundamental of human emotions, Kahlil King wants to succeed in her professional life and is not against being praised for a job well done.

But consider the subtle differences between these two otherwise similar instances that followed King, an organizational psychologist and adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

First, King received an award based on the successes of her past research. Her immediate supervisor announced the achievement in front of her colleagues, listed her accomplishments, and presented the reward in a very formal fashion.

Second, she received a letter from her university’s provost and president. In it, the pair acknowledged King’s work and thanked her for her “continued, valuable contribution to the organization.” The letter was decoupled from any specific outcome. It didn’t mark a promotion or celebrate a grant proposal. It simply appreciated her dedication and hard work.

The difference between the two events is nuanced but important.

Both are examples of positive reinforcement, a powerful set of tools that improve employee experience, strengthen professional relationships, reinforce organizational culture, and boost happiness. But the two differ in how and, more importantly, why the reinforcement was delivered.

The former focuses solely on the outcomes of King’s work—her former successes and new research grant. This outcome-based reinforcement is known as recognition.

“Recognition is typically a response to a job well done,” King tells Dropbox. “Usually, there’s a public display of acknowledgement for something that’s been done, such as meeting an important goal or consistency exhibiting quality job performance.”

The latter, on the other hand, pushed beyond outcomes. King’s provost and president wrote to her to celebrate her inherent value, thanking her for her contributions and personal qualities. This human-centered reinforcement is called appreciation.

“It’s an acknowledgment of a person and the valuable contribution made to the organization, group or team,” she says. “This can also be done publicly and is not usually accompanied by an extrinsic motivator. Instead, it is meant to intrinsically motivate someone.”

While recognition is common in our workplaces, appreciation is seldom seen. We default to recognition, basing out praise solely on outcomes. When there’s no opportunity to provide it, we stay silent.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. By adding appreciation to our toolkit, we can build workplaces that support people as human beings and not just their accomplishments.

Pivoting to appreciation

Psychologists such as King are not advocating for wholesale abandonment of recognition—far from it. They concede that recognition is an important and necessary tool for organizations, but advise us to recognize its limitations and consider how appreciation could support it.

Recognition only exists where a project is successful enough to permit it. Appreciation, on the other hand, can occur wherever people do great work. Recognition is limited; awards, bonuses, and other instruments are special because they are scarce. Conversely, appreciation is infinite. You can give personalized thanks to each member of a 10,000-strong team without diminishing its effect. Recognition requires authority. It’s a formal form of gratitude that flows down the chain of command. Appreciation can exist everywhere. People should appreciate their colleagues, bosses, and direct reports.

While most research into feedback focuses on recognition, there is a growing body of work suggesting that appreciation plays an extremely important role in human psychology.

Recognition requires authority. Appreciation can exist everywhere.

According to a worldwide study from Towers Watson, workers report that appreciation is the most significant driver of engagement. In a survey from Glassdoor, more than half of all respondents revealed feeling more appreciation from their boss would help them stay longer at their company. Research from Harvard Medical School suggests appreciation improves employee health, lowers stress, and cuts absenteeism.

Such benefits pose a troubling question: if we understand the benefit of appreciation, why then do we dole it out so infrequently? Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, suggests it comes down to unlearned linguistic abilities.

“The obvious answer is that we’re not fluent in the language of positive emotions in the workplace,” he wrote in Harvard Business Review. “We’re so unaccustomed to sharing them that we don’t feel comfortable doing so. Heartfelt appreciation is a muscle we’ve not spent much time building, or felt encouraged to build.”

Our starting point is worse than that, though. It’s not only that we have an underdeveloped appreciation muscle. According to Schwartz, we’re often far more experienced at expressing negative emotions. When an opportunity for feedback arises, we reach for what is familiar — complaints, criticisms, and grievances.

But that’s not to say appreciation is unattainable. If we learn how to effectively deliver moments of appreciation and bake them into our working lives, we can develop our systems of feedback far beyond the simple outcome-based recognition machines that they are.

Turning theory into thanks

Appreciation is a rare beast in most organizations, appearing for brief glimpses before disappearing. But in a handful of businesses, it thrives. Pushed by innovative leaders, appreciation has become a cultural staple capable of uniting disparate teams, motivating individuals, and helping everyone do their best work.

“Appreciation has to be a two-way street. To create an appreciation culture, the leader has to get the ball rolling.”—Josh Baron

To discover how best to integrate appreciation into a culture, we investigated a couple of successful organizations, learning how they implemented, cultivated, and retained a culture of appreciation in the workplace.

Appreciate others

Josh Baron, co-founder of Banyan Global Family Business Advisors, has worked with hundreds of small businesses to iron out their cultural wrinkles and optimize their processes. But when it comes to learning how to harness appreciation, one stands out. The business, which Baron doesn’t name for privacy reasons, was led by a young man named Harry.

“Strategically brilliant, disarmingly funny, a driven worker, and still grounded in his deep values, Harry grew the firm at more than 15% per year,” Baron wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

But as with many family businesses, there was more than a little dysfunction woven into the fabric of the organization. The firm’s co-owners—Harry’s sister and cousin—were at odds and their working relationship had frayed to where it was almost non-existent. Their conflict spilled over into criticism of Harry’s leadership style and management ability.

During a particularly difficult meeting, Harry’s frustrations boiled over.

“No one appreciates all the sacrifices I’ve made for this company,” he yelled. “The countless nights spent at industry conferences with people I don’t like; the weekends with bankers and lawyers to finish the deals; the sleepless nights worrying about missing bank covenants. You all take this success for granted!”

When Baron became involved with the business, he made a counterintuitive suggestion: instead of feeding Harry’s “painful plea for appreciation,” he instructed Harry to dole out appreciation to his family members. He was resistant at first, but slowly Harry summoned up some heartfelt praise.

“Without you, we’d be nowhere,” he told his older sister.  “You’re sharp and you’ve guided our people decisions with real wisdom. You’ve always been there for us, for me. Thank you.”

That moment appreciation was a turning point for the firm’s culture. Without any encouragement, Harry’s sister and cousin immediately returned the sentiment, sharing that they appreciated how much Harry had sacrificed for the company.

“[A]ppreciation has to be a two-way street,” wrote Baron. “To create an appreciation culture, the leader has to get the ball rolling.”

Establish cultural rituals

Every Friday, at precisely half-past nine in the morning, Hive’s employees join a company-wide Zoom call. They sit quietly for a few moments until their chief of staff, Andrea Bilton, logs on and kicks things off.

“Thanks for joining this morning, I’m really excited to get started,” she says. “Hey Michaela, I really appreciate your positivity. It really helps me stay energized through the day.”

Then Bilton mutes her mic and after a few seconds Michaela Rollings, Hive’s senior brand and content manager, pops up on the screen.

“Thanks, Andrea,” he says. “That means a lot. I want to call out Peyton. I’m always inspired by his enthusiasm and dedication to our customers.”

Then Rollings mutes his mic, Peyton appears, and the chain of appreciation continues. It’s a ritual dubbed Happy Hive Standup and it’s how the New York-based project management software company reinforces appreciation in its company culture.

 

“What is most important is knowing your employees well enough to determine which form of acknowledgement is best for them.”—Kahlil King

Rollings says their appreciation ritual is especially helpful for new employees. “When you see that a company does an appreciation ritual in your first week on the job, it's a sign that this company values individuals, their contributions, and is an overall positive place to work,” she says. “That makes you want to get involved and work harder.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, rituals such as these are even more important. The pandemic has forced companies from their offices and into the unfamiliar world of distributed work. Shorn of almost all unplanned interactions between colleagues — walking by someone’s desk, taking the same elevator, eating lunch together — we must design new opportunities for appreciation. If we don't, we risk defaulting to what’s easier: staying silent.

Tailoring your feedback

Marcus Buckingham, business researcher and author of Nine Lies About Work, once likened quality leadership to the difference between checkers and chess.

Average managers play checkers, where “all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable.” They take a one-size-fits-all approach and treat everyone identically. While you can certainly run teams that way, you can’t get the most out of your employees.

That’s why great managers play chess.

“In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves,” wrote Marcus. “More important, you won’t win if you don’t think carefully about how you move the pieces.”

That message is especially important when thinking about positive reinforcement.

Different people respond to different stimuli, says King, echoing Buckingham’s message. Recognition alone may be sufficient for some but severely lacking for others. Indeed, she recalls a recent instance of public recognition that backfired spectacularly.

One of her colleagues worked on a large project that had recently ended. To mark the moment, the team threw a recognition party for the project lead. But the shy and reserved lead was “mortified” when she was called to take the stage to accept her award. Instead of buoying her spirits, the celebration made her feel worse.

“Both recognition and appreciation are important,” King says. “It is critical to make sure employees feel appreciated, either through words, in private, or formal public lauding and praise. What is most important is knowing your employees well enough to determine which form of acknowledgement is best for them.”