The Appreciation Gap

©2004 Esther Derby

In a recent workshop, I described an exercise for expressing appreciation. “That won’t go over here,” stated Patty, one of the managers in the workshop. “These are engineers; they don’t want that mushy stuff. Besides, they know that we value them.” Patty didn’t notice that several of the engineers were shaking their heads in disagreement.

The engineers in Patty’s company aren’t the only ones starved for notice and appreciation. A recent Gallup Poll report quoted this statistic: “…the number-one reason people leave organizations is that they don’t feel appreciated, notes the U.S. Department of Labor.”

Given the high cost of replacing knowledge workers, reducing the number-one reason for turnover seems like a good investment. And when you consider that this investment doesn’t cost a dime, why not eliminate the appreciation gap?

An Appreciation Primer

When you offer appreciation, appreciate the person, not just the work. Most people like to hear “you did a good job.” But a comment on the quality of work is an evaluation. I like to use this form, which I learned from the work of Virginia Satir:

[Name of person] I appreciate you for [contribution, action, quality].

I might say, “Tom, I appreciate you for moderating technical reviews. It’s really making a difference in our code quality.”

I’l admit that this felt awkward the first time I tried it. But I also noticed that these words had a very different effect than “You did a good job” or “Thank you.”

Appreciation Guidelines

Be authentic. Authenticity means that you really do believe what you are saying. Pavlov proved that it’s possible to shape canine behavior by providing rewards for a desired response. People, however are not canines, and they are quick to recognize manipulation. Going through the motions isn’t enough.

Appreciate privately. Most people don’t need or want their manager to gush over every accomplishment in public. In fact, public recognition is uncomfortable for many people. A word in private will let people know that you do notice and appreciate.

Appreciate weekly. “Atta boy” once a year during a performance evaluation isn’t enough. Notice and comment on a contribution every week.

Traps to Avoid

Don’t dilute the value of appreciation. Some well-intentioned person devised the “praise sandwich” as a recipe for delivering feedback. A praise sandwich surrounds criticism between two bits of praise. I suspect this person wanted to ensure that the feedback recipient was in a receptive mood by making them feel good. In reality, the praise sandwich conditions people to expect a slap after a positive stroke. If you have feedback to offer, do it! Don’t dilute the value of appreciation by only giving it along with bad news.

Token rewards anger as often as they delight. One colleague received a movie ticket from his boss after he’d worked well into the evening to fix a critical defect. His response to the reward was one of anger. “After I already spent one evening away from home, he wants me to spend another one without my wife!” he stated in disbelief.

Don’t wait. When Sara handed in her resignation, her boss told her she was the best project manager he’d ever worked with. “Why’d he wait until I quit to tell me?” Sara fumed later. “Maybe if he’d let me know that he noticed what I did for the company I’d still be there.” A few simple words a week could have kept Sara on the job.

You may feel awkward when you first try giving appreciations–I know I did. Practice in a low-risk situation, maybe by telling a store clerk you appreciate her for helping you find just the right item. Watch what happens and practice until it feels natural. Then try out this simple practice at work.

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