Nakul has toiled for seven years at his current firm. Just two days ago, he got an award for being a Great Team Leader. However, Nakul is not buoyed by the plaque or the certificate. For all his efforts, he feels the recognition is both too little, and too late. In fact, he plans to put in his papers and join a start-up, even if it involves a pay cut. Tired of being an unappreciated cog in the wheel, Nakul wants to work in a company where he is valued for the person he is.
In their book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, Gary Chapman and Paul White, distinguish recognition from appreciation and provide different modes of communicating the latter. They aver that around 85 to 90% of U.S. organisations have some sort of recognition program where employees are formally awarded for carrying out a certain project well or for serving the organization for a decade or longer. However, according to the authors, most HR professionals feel that recognition programs don’t motivate people.
Younger employees don’t necessarily value loyalty. In our current confused, contradictory zeitgeist, that prizes both wealth and meaning, workers typically seek brighter or more rewarding pastures instead of garnering years of service. Further, the generic rewards that companies dole out don’t necessarily strike a chord with employees. What is Nakul going to do with a plaque and certificate?
Further, recognition tends to be more instrumental in its purpose as it awards performance or the attainment of specific targets. Appreciation, on the other hand, holds the individual in high esteem. Instead of emphasizing what the person has done, appreciation shines a spotlight on “who the person is.”
Another drawback of recognition is that only top performers receive them. While the awards may spur stellar workers to toil ever harder, what about the average worker who could also benefit from a pat on the back? Unlike recognition, which tends to motivate only a select few, appreciation can be tailored to fit the unique needs of every individual in an organisation’s hierarchy.
Moreover, recognition often lacks a personal touch. Usually dictated by a company’s HR policy, rewards feel “impersonal, top-down.” As a result, employees may question their authenticity. Like Nakul, many people find rewards hollow. Over the past five years, Nakul has had two supervisors but neither of them ever bothered to seek him out to let him know how he was doing. The annual appraisal letter that he received by email seemed more like a cut-and-paste job as the wording remained largely unchanged even when a new supervisor came on board.
Words of affirmation
While acknowledging that recognition programs often backfire, Chapman and White claim that appreciation at the workplace can be communicated in at least five ways. The most common language, easily understood by people, involves “Words of Affirmation,” wherein you share what you like about a person or their work explicitly in words, spoken or written. However, when you praise people, try to be as specific as possible as that shows you have noticed what exactly the person has done well. Instead of a generic “Great job,” a comment like, “Your report is concise and reads very well,” indicates exactly what you value.
Spending time with a colleague also shows that you cherish their contributions. Going out for lunch with a teammate or simply chatting with a colleague every few weeks to find out how things are going can make a palpable difference in people’s motivations. But when you convey your appreciation by spending quality time with a colleague, make sure you give them your undivided attention. If you are constantly checking your phone while lunching with them, they are unlikely to feel validated.
Unlike rewards, appreciation may even be communicated when a person is struggling to cope. For example, if you know a colleague has to visit a critically ill parent in the hospital every evening, you may offer to lighten his workload so she can leave half-hour earlier for an entire week. Or, if a child is sick, you may reschedule a meeting so that your colleague can take his kid to the doctor. Such “Acts of Service” can go a long way in conveying your deep appreciation of your colleagues.
Honouring a colleague’s birthday by giving them a small but personal “Tangible Gift” is another way of affirming their worth. Similarly, you may surprise your boss or secretary by ordering their favourite cake.
Finally, you may selectively and judiciously use the language of “Physical Touch” to communicate your appreciation. Congratulate a colleague with a warm handshake or a high-five for a job well done. However, if you feel the other person is uncomfortable with physical contact, keep your hands to yourself and express your validation through other channels.