Appreciation is an underutilized part of organizational life.
It’s not that leaders think they don’t need to make employees feel appreciated. Most are in agreement that showing appreciation for great work is key to a positive organizational culture. And the research supports that belief. For example, Professors Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that “a little thanks goes a long way” and experiencing even small moments of gratitude from managers significantly increases employee motivation. The same is true for teams. Researcher Perry Geue found that teams perform tasks better when their members believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.
But this research also points to why appreciation is underutilized.
Most organizations equate appreciation with rewards. They create bonus structures and gift-giving programs. But most research shows its expressions of gratitude that move the needle on feeling appreciated. And while saying something heartfelt while giving your team new coffee mugs might have some effect, it’s the day-to-day ways leaders express gratitude that really matter.
So, in this article, we’ll review four ways leaders can help make employees feel appreciated—we’ll cover the research and some practical ways to get started.
Touch Base Early And Often
The first way to help make employees feel appreciated is to touch base early and often. Especially in an era of hybrid and remote work, it can be easy to let a day or two (or more) go by without having a social conversation with your people. So, make a point to check-in often, and preferably early in the day. These check-ins don’t have to be formal, performance check-ins. They’re much more about making time to socialize and let them know you care.
Research from Jessica Methot suggests quick hellos and casual conversations mean more than you think. Small talk at work (or in Slack) is how people find the mutual interests or common background experiences that create bonds. These bonds lead to friendships and feelings of connection and appreciation on teams. So, make time for small talk and it’ll have a big effect on how appreciated your people feel.
Give Unscheduled Feedback
The second way to help make employees feel appreciated is to give unscheduled feedback. Many team leaders wait until formal performance reviews or regularly scheduled check-ins to give any feedback at all. But feedback that feels obligatory is not only less potent, it is less appreciated. Unscheduled feedback means taking the time after small wins or even just random moments to praise people for things they’re doing well. It also means finding time at the end of projects or when things go wrong to give constructive feedback as well.
When feedback is given more closely to the actions observed, it sends people the message that they’re so important the feedback can’t wait. And it’s not just about manager-employee feedback. Developing a culture on the team of unscheduled praise can go a long way toward helping employees feel appreciated. Research from Ron Friedman shows that high-performing teams reported receiving more frequent appreciation at work —from their manager and their colleagues.
Be Flexible And Trust
The third way to help make employees feel appreciated is to be flexible and trust your people. We know from decades of research into human behavior that having autonomy at work is a powerful motivator. But giving people autonomy also signals trust. Leaders who let their people determine how they’ll work, when they’ll work, and even where they’ll work send a clear and compelling signal that they trust their people. And research from Paul Zak shows that feeling trusted can improve not just motivation but outcome performance as well.
Of course, most important is that when we feel trusted, we feel appreciated by our leaders and our team. And Zak’s research suggests that those initial feelings set off a virtuous cycle: we respond to feelings of trust and appreciation with more trustworthy behavior, which triggers more appreciation, which triggers more positive behavior. And so on. And so on. So, get the cycle going by using any discussions about flexibility to also convey trust and appreciation.
The final way to help make employees feel appreciated is to talk growth—their growth, not yours or the company’s. This means having regular conversations about people’s goals, career plans, and desires for their development. Professor Teresa Amabile has compiled the largest body of evidence to show that, of all the things that intrinsically motivate us, feeling that we’re making progress is one of the most powerful. But you can only help people show progress in their careers if you know about their career goals.
Unfortunately, a lot of leaders refrain from talking growth and career development outside of an annual review process. But plans change often, and the formalized process isn’t the most effective way to appear interested in someone’s desires—and hence not an effective way to signal to them that they’re appreciated. So, talk growth early and often, let people know you’re there to help them with their whole career and create opportunities that will help them grow.
Unlike gifts or awards, these four methods are not one-time offerings to people. They’re habits. Their effects may feel minimal at first, but they will grow in potency over time. Leaders who make their employees feel appreciated do so over the long-haul. Because the way to let employees know you care and that you support them, is to show them a track record of care and support. And overtime, that will prove how much they’re appreciated. And over even more time, that appreciation will help employees do their best work ever.
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