Appreciation – Don’t Keep it to Yourself

Written by AWA Director of Research and Development, Karen Plum.

I once heard a stand-up comedian tell his TV studio audience – “If you’re the type of person that laughs on the inside, you’re no use to me! The viewers need to hear you laughing, and then they’ll laugh too!”

Prompted by Employee Appreciation Day (5 March), it occurred to me that if we appreciate others but don’t tell them, then that appreciation is wasted. Similarly, only appreciating others in a “Hallmark moment” way lacks meaning and authenticity.

When working virtually, and as we transition into new models like a hybrid of home/in office styles, our expression of appreciation is even more important, as we strive to maintain strong working relationships.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned about appreciation.

1. Positive emotions are powerful

Every day we experience emotions – positive and negative. Our brains are wired to look for threats, so we are more attuned to the negative and to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, anger and sadness.

On the flip side, positive emotions such as joy, hope, pride, inspiration and amusement are much ‘quieter’, more subtle, and can go unnoticed as the noisier, negative ones dominate our inner voice. That’s why we are advised to spend time each day thinking of “3 things you’re grateful for today”. Good things can be buried by those that didn’t go well. How often does one negative comment during a meeting overwhelm the positive ones? Deepening our understanding of this imbalance can help us stop feeding and playing into that negative narrative.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What research tells us

Positive emotions deliver health benefits – reducing stress and potentially acting as a buffer between us and stressful events. They can foster resilience and enable better coping strategies. There is evidence of positive impacts on memory, cardiovascular function and longevity.

A pioneer in this area, American professor and researcher Barbara Fredrickson developed a theory in 1998 that demonstrates how positive emotions “broaden and build” – expanding our awareness, allowing us to embrace different ideas, see possibilities and not be constrained by negativity. The experience of a positive emotion leads to particular types of thoughts and actions, enabling us to build and go further.

Let’s consider gratitude. This happens when someone acknowledges another person as the source of some good fortune or outcome for them. This can promote feelings of joy that the other person created that good fortune when they didn’t have to and prompt the recipient to be similarly generous – to ‘pay forward’. Essentially this is “being the change you want to see in the world”.

2. Take time to appreciate others

Some people feel that their colleagues get paid for their work, and that should be enough. However, the way people bring themselves to work depends upon how they are treated and valued.

Giving someone a pay rise or a promotion to recognise their achievements is usually well received, but the impact is short lived. What would we value most – a small pay rise, or a great manager (i.e. a more supportive, inspirational or empathetic one than we have today)?

The impact of being valued every day, encouraged to do our best work, supported through challenges without blame, invited to contribute our best ideas (and be recognised for them) and publicly, genuinely thanked would surely help most of us bring our best selves to work every day.

“When we inject people with positivity, their outlook expands. They see the big picture. When we inject them with neutrality or negativity, their peripheral vision shrinks. There is no big picture, no dots to connect”.

Barbara Fredrickson (2009). “Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life”, P57, Harmony

3. It starts with leaders, but doesn’t end there

Employee Appreciation Day is a great opportunity to get us all thinking about being positive. But this isn’t just about employee engagement. Appreciation isn’t a one-way thing, top down from employer to employee. If appreciation and the expression of positive input is good for the recipient and the giver, then expressing appreciation to your manager, your leader/s, clients and of course your peers is also beneficial. Friends and family will also benefit from more positive input from you, and the impact broadens and accumulates.

If appreciation is role modeled by leaders as part of organisational culture, then others are given tacit approval to behave likewise. While we don’t need a leader’s permission to express appreciation or give positive feedback, if the culture discourages the expression of emotions, then we may receive less positivity in return. If we become role models, others should start to follow suit.

4. Like all habits, appreciation takes practice

If you are someone that feels uncomfortable giving praise or thanking others for their efforts, you’re not alone. Adopting a new habit takes time and practice before it becomes automatic and feels comfortable. Finding an authentic way to express positive emotions takes practice – but imagine the impact! If appreciation is genuinely felt, it can be expressed in a heartfelt way. It is not a one-off, once a year expression, and must be congruent with other forms of behaviour. I cannot thank my colleague for writing an excellent report and then present it to my CEO as my own work. That will damage our relationship, breaking trust and reducing my colleague’s desire to share her skills and expertise with me in the future.

5. Building an appreciative culture reinforces trust and social cohesion

AWA’s research identified that social cohesion and trust are vital aspects of workplace relationships. Cohesion and trust build and are sustained when we are consciously intentional about protecting and nurturing relationships – knowing people well (as people), expressing concern for them, understanding what makes them tick and how to get the best from them. Reinforcement through a range of positive emotions helps build resilience and cohesion between colleagues. It is, after all, the thing that correlates most strongly with the performance of teams, wherever we are working.

And finally, I would like to express appreciation to my friend Marjorie Raymond, who introduced me to the work of Barbara Fredrickson and helped me connect with the power of positive emotions

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