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Employee Recognition: Improving Staff Morale through Authentic Appreciation
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Staff burnout, low morale and high turnover have been an ongoing challenge across industries for years. Unfortunately, this issue is not limited to a few sectors — most Americans don’t feel valued at work, regardless of their job.  While almost 90% of all organizations and businesses in the U.S. have some form of employee recognition program, job satisfaction and employee engagement are actually declining.   A Gallup poll found that only 30% of U.S. employees are actively involved in and emotionally committed to their place of employment.  This was the highest level of disengagement found since the research began in 2000.

Employee Recognition isn’t Working

In another poll conducted by Gallup, 65% of North American workers report not having received any recognition for doing a good job in the past 12 months.  Additionally, individuals who voluntarily leave their employment cite not feeling appreciated as the top reason they are leaving.  Interestingly, while 51% of supervisors believe they are doing a good job of recognizing employees for do a good job, only 17% of the employees report feeling that their supervisors do a good job of recognizing them.

Why Most Employee Recognition Programs Don’t Work

While the purpose of employee recognition activities are well intentioned, they actually often lead to negative results.  In fact, the most common responses by employees when discussing employee recognition typically range from apathy to cynicism.  For example, the generic nature of rewards that many programs use feels impersonal – when everyone gets the same “employee of the month” certificate.

Another problematic aspect is the focus on recognition in front of large groups:  30-40% of individuals indicate they do not want to go up in front of a group to receive an award.  In fact, one staff member emphatically stated, “They can give me the award, but I won’t go up and get it unless they carry me up there!”

Finally, most recognition programs heavily emphasize tangible rewards – plaques, certificates, gift cards, coupons, and small tokens.  While most people don’t mind receiving gifts, if they don’t also hear verbal praise, receive individual attention, or get assistance when it is needed, the objects received seem superficial.

Core Conditions for Staff to Truly Feel Appreciated

Four core conditions have been identified which need to be present in order for employees to truly feel appreciated (which differs from recognition just being communicated).  Team members will feel valued when appreciation is communicated:

  1. Regularly.  What is ‘regularly’?  It varies depending on the work setting, the frequency of interaction between co-workers, and the nature of the relationship.  However, ‘regularly’ clearly implies more than once a year at an employee’s performance review, or when someone receives the “Staff Member of the Month” award.
  2. Utilizing the ‘language’ and actions important to the recipient.  The key word is “recipient”.  Most of us tend to communicate appreciation to others through the actions which we value – like giving a verbal compliment or sending an email. But not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways.  Some people appreciate words of affirmation, while others are encouraged when someone helps them with a task.  Spending time is another way to demonstrate support, like stopping by a colleague’s office to see how they are doing. Bringing a colleague a special cup of coffee when you know they’ve had a long day can be a “pick me up”.  Even a “high five” or a “fist bump” can be a form of celebration when a difficult project has been completed.
  3. In a way that is personal and individualized. While group-based recognition is a good start (“Way to go, team.  Our client satisfaction ratings improved significantly last quarter.”), if the appreciation doesn’t relate to what the individual team member did to help achieve the goal, the communication can fall flat.  Team members want to know what they have done that is valued – that you appreciate that they stayed late after the Mother’s Day event to help clean up.
  4. In a manner that is perceived as genuine and authentic. If the communication of appreciation is not perceived as being genuine, nothing else really matters.  Actions of recognition can appear inauthentic when:  a) the actions suddenly appear after implementation of a program on appreciation;  b) a person’s tone of voice, posture, or facial expressions don’t seem to match what they are saying;  c) how a person relates to you in front of others differs from how they interact with you privately;  d) the individual has a history of “saying one thing and doing another”;  or e) there is an overall question of the motivation of the deliverer – do they have an ulterior motive?  There are other potential factors that undermine perceived authenticity, but these are some of the most common mentioned.

Practical Steps for Communicating Authentic Appreciation

Helping individuals change their actions is difficult. No one is looking for more work to do.  As a result, the focus needs to be on making actions of encouragement more efficient – to spend time with those who value time, to send notes to those who are impacted by them, to help someone out who will be grateful for the assistance, and to give a gift to someone who will appreciate the thought.

Two important points should be emphasized:  1) appreciation can be communicated by anyone to anyone, and 2) any team member, regardless of position, can positively impact their workplace culture.  Employees report they want to know how to encourage one another – they do not just want to be recognized by their supervisor.

How do people know (or find out) what their colleagues value?  The topic of “how do you feel appreciated” is not a common workplace conversation and this type of question can make individuals feel somewhat uncomfortable.   But people do tend to think in terms of “encouragement” and “discouragement”.  So, the question to ask is:  “When you are discouraged, what is something that someone can do or say that would encourage you?”

Additionally, an online assessment tool (the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory) is available that identifies the primary language of appreciation of individuals, along with the specific actions that are most important to them The results can be compiled to create a group profile and list of valued actions for a team who works together.

Getting Started

We have found that an individual doesn’t have to be at the top of the organization to begin to make a difference.  Anyone, in any position, can begin to create a more positive workplace by:

  • Focusing on yourself first. Commit to do what you can to communicate appreciation to others.  Don’t look to your supervisor or administrators to take the lead.  Start by doing what you can, where you are.
  • Teaming up with others. Any behavior change is more likely to occur (and to continue over time) when others are involved.  Ask a colleague, your supervisor, or the team you lead to discuss how this could apply to your setting.  Commit to work on a plan of action together.
  • See what works, and what needs to be changed, but don’t give up.  Small changes over a long period of time can add up to significant differences.

Staff morale can improve significantly and a more positive workplace can result from learning how to communicate authentic appreciation to one another.  And, as those who work in talent acquisition know, training a current, motivated employee is far easier than trying to find someone to replace them.

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About The Author
Dr. Paul White
Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker, consultant and trainer who “makes work relationships work”. He is co-author of the 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, along with Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the NY Times #1 best-selling, the 5 Love Languages, as well as Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, and Sync or Swim (a fable about working together effectively as a team). For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com .
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