The Essentialism of Appreciation

This is a time of year of gratitude and thankfulness, and what a time to appreciate those you work with and who work for you. While any appreciation is positive to give to another, focused appreciation that is given with thought and care is even better.

One of the most significant “how tos” of expressing appreciation is to be specific. When you thank someone for something, tell them in detail what it was that they did that was great. While saying thank you and showing appreciation is important in itself, it is far more helpful when it’s specific than when it’s vague and general.

When you are specific, it helps the person being appreciated see clearly what they did well. Therefore, it helps them do more of that in the future. Let’s say I have an employee named Heather, who is working in a customer service environment, and I want her to focus on listening to what customers truly want. So when I see she’s making that effort it’s important to acknowledge it. I want to reward the behavior that I want her to elevate and emulate. I might say, “Heather, when you were dealing with that customer yesterday, you genuinely listened and worked to understand what the issue was. You really heard them, and you took immediate action. It seemed like you moved them from being very upset in that moment to being satisfied. I believe they are going to be a repeat customer for us as a result. How you handled it made all the difference.” That kind of appreciation shows Heather where she’s excelling, and motivates her to do more of the same.

I was coaching a client recently and we were talking about employee appreciation. When she wanted to acknowledge someone on her team, she would simply say “thank you” with no specifics. We talked about the impact of detailed recognition, and how when you give someone specific praise, that can be a game changer. My client started giving detailed kudos, and productivity on her team increased by 25%.

It’s also important to consider how an individual likes to receive praise. Some people like to receive it in public, and some people don’t. Some people want it to be effusive and energetic, and some people don’t. They just want it short and sweet and to the point. It’s crucial to learn how someone likes to receive praise because having a tailored approach increases the value of the gratitude. Give a person appreciation in the way that is most appreciated by them.

You also want to match appreciation to a person’s behavior and values. If you tend to be more on the quiet side, more introverted, and someone you are giving praise to is more effusive, you might need to be more demonstrative so that your praise is profuse. Otherwise, the person may leave thinking that the appreciation was forced and that appreciation may not be as meaningful to them as it could be otherwise.

As far as values, think about what matters most to that person and try to match the praise in that context as well. For example, if someone is all about doing meaningful work that helps other people, and that’s clearly their primary driving value, then make sure when you’re thanking them, your praise ties in with demonstrating how what they are doing is helping others.

Also match the praise to their professional goals. Appreciation can be a powerful tool to assist and encourage people to develop — so match your praise to the areas they want to grow. That’s another way of helping someone be intentional toward development and success.

Make sure that the appreciation you express is sincere and heartfelt. People can tell when you’re thanking them because you feel you have to, or because you read in a book that you’re supposed to. Look for something to praise that you genuinely do appreciate, and make it heartfelt.

See to it that you have the space to say thank you in a way that it is meaningful. For example, if you thank someone in a crowded room where a lot is going on, with little time to express the acknowledgement, it may be lost on the person and on others. I’ve seen this happen often. Someone will say in the course of a big meeting, “I really want to thank Esther, because she did great on this project.” And everyone in the room nods and moves on to something else immediately. While I was acknowledged, it didn’t have the power it could have had. Make sure that the environment is right for providing sufficient acknowledgement. Be sensitive that the right people are in the room, and you have an appropriate right amount time for the praise.

Make a point to acknowledge people in real time, or as soon as possible. If someone has forgotten that something happened, or exactly what went into your effort, the appreciation is less meaningful. For example with a direct report if you share, “One month ago, when you told me that you had a successful tough conversation with someone on your team and that shifted their behavior I was really proud of you, because that was the first time you had done this.” You don’t want to leave someone struggling to remember what in the world you are talking about when you are looking to praise them on a job well done. It’s best to give praise the day something happens, or at least that week, or as soon as you reasonably can.

While it’s wonderful nice to get a thank you, there are times when it isn’t meaningful, and that’s usually when it’s too general. Saying “you did a great job” is not as meaningful as being clear on what they did that generated your comment. Especially to a person who is genuinely trying to grow and develop and wants input from their supervisor on whether and how they are growing, clarity is best.

When a supervisor shares, “I want you to know you’re doing a great job.” While the employee may be relieved and excited, they are not receiving feedback that is actually useful to them. What are they doing that’s good? How have they improved? What should they be focusing on in order to continue doing a great job, or do a better one? Those are the learnings they could be gaining if you were specific in your praise. Those are things they want to know and should hear, especially if they are only getting feedback from their supervisor a handful of times in a year.

Be careful that you don’t use praise as manipulation. If I feel that you’re praising me just so I’ll continue working, perhaps because you know that I’m dissatisfied about something, that is going to backfire. If your appreciation comes from an angle of “I’d better give her a little pat on the back, otherwise she’s going to be upset,” I’m probably not going to respond well, because I’ll see through it. Or it will lead to an unhealthy relationship. That’s a power play. If I’m motivated, I’m going to continue putting in effort. And I’ll be motivated if I’m getting genuine appreciation for specific actions or areas where I’m doing well.

Be aware of and sensitive to an individual’s personality, behavior, values, and needs, so that you can be sure to give praise in a way that makes them feel safe and that has them feel seen for their effort. Even though December is a month of reflection and gratitude, it’s always wonderful to make day a time of appreciation and thankfulness. Happy holidays to everyone!

Esther Weinberg is the Chief Leadership Development Officer and Founder of The Ready Zone. To dive deeper into the ideas and strategies offered in this article, complete our Needs Assessment and we’ll schedule time to connect.

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