27 September 2023

Personal touch: The little things that make employees feel appreciated

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Kerry Roberts Gibson, Kate O’Leary and Joseph R. Weintraub* say if managers made a far broader group of employees feel appreciated, the benefits would be considerable.

Photo: Nattakorn Maneerat

Imagine this scenario: An employee named Rowen arrives at work on his 10-year anniversary and finds a gift card with a sticky note on his desk.

The note is from his manager, acknowledging his anniversary.

Realising it didn’t even include a thank-you or a congratulations, Rowen rolls his eyes.

While most organisations run employee-recognition programs of some sort, all too often they produce reactions like Rowen’s.

Instead of giving people a meaningful sense of appreciation, they become just another box for managers to check and are completely disconnected from employees’ accomplishments.

Some companies try to make programs more relevant by giving specific awards yet that approach has problems too: awards can be seen as an elite opportunity for a chosen few — and leave the majority feeling left out and overlooked.

If managers could make a far broader group of employees feel appreciated, the benefits would be considerable.

Adam Grant and Francesca Gino have found that when people experience gratitude from their manager, they’re more productive.

Another researcher recently found that teams perform tasks better when their members believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.

But in our combined 50-plus years of working to improve organisations, we’ve observed that many managers struggle to make employees feel that their talents and contributions are noticed and valued.

To explore this problem, we recently engaged with employees and managers.

The gap between managers and employees

Our discussions surfaced notable gaps between managers’ and employees’ perceptions.

First, there was a stark difference between how much managers appreciated employees and how appreciated employees felt.

Managers incorrectly assumed employees knew how they felt about them.

Second, many managers reported that communicating appreciation seemed really complicated.

Some had trouble balancing it with developmental feedback and feared sending mixed messages to employees.

Some were concerned that their efforts to offer appreciation to all employees would be routinised and seen as impersonal and meaningless.

Employees, on the other hand, did not see this as a complex task and quickly and clearly articulated the precise ways managers could effectively express appreciation:

  1. Touch base early and often

While regularly taking time to say hello to employees and check in with them might seem like an unnecessary drain on your productivity, these interactions are actually valuable points of connection for your employees (and for you).

They prevent your staff from feeling invisible.

If you create routines that allow your employees to share stories with you about what they’re working on, you can make them feel “known” by you — and stay in the loop on what’s happening within your organisation.

  1. Give balanced feedback

Employees want to know both what they’re doing well and where they can improve.

Receiving feedback — positive and developmental — was one of the key things that made them feel valued.

As one employee explained, receiving praise from her manager was meaningful, but because she never got improvement-oriented suggestions, she questioned how valid the positive feedback was.

Meanwhile, some employees who received only critical feedback seemed to give up, because they felt they could never do anything right.

The trick is to avoid giving both types of feedback at once.

Be sure to clearly separate out the positive feedback from the developmental feedback.

  1. Address growth opportunities

Employees want to know what the future holds for their careers.

When managers take time to explicitly discuss growth potential or provide opportunities and “stretch” assignments, employees interpret it as evidence that they’re valued.

Conversely, when managers neglect to address people’s development, employees take it as a sign that they are not.

  1. Offer flexibility

Whether managers gave people the option to work remotely or even simply suggested someone come in late the day after working extra hours, employees were quick to interpret it as an important signal of trust and appreciation.

  1. Make it a habit

Simply taking a few minutes to tell your employee specifically what you value about their contributions can have a tremendous impact.

Try to build it into your regular routines.

The idea isn’t to create an automatic system for thanking employees, however; it’s more about giving yourself permission to express your appreciation in a way that feels natural to you.

Mistakes to avoid

Employees were equally clear about the ways in which managers communicated a lack of appreciation for them.

Here are some common things managers get wrong:

  1. Expressions of gratitude that are inauthentic or sweeping generalisations

Appreciation needs to be specific and genuine.

Employees were not moved by empty or offhand gestures.

There’s a big difference between yelling a thank-you on your way out the door versus sitting down with someone to describe the things you value about their work and its positive effect on the team or organisation.

  1. Neglecting standard procedures

Many busy managers feel that procedures like annual reviews, quarterly check-ins, and nominating employees for awards are a waste of time.

But to employees, they’re important milestones that provide clues about their progress and performance.

When a manager skips them, employees often infer that they, not the procedure, are what the manager doesn’t value.

  1. Letting employees feel isolated from co-workers or the larger organisation

For managers, it’s much easier to see how the contributions of each person fit with the work of others, but employees often lack that insight.

When managers highlight how employees use one another’s work within their department or across others, it sets the stage for appreciation to spread throughout.

Making appreciation easy and contagious

The best part of appreciation is that it’s free and doesn’t consume a lot of time.

Building a culture of appreciation comes down mostly to a lot of small commonsense practices.

Start by expressing more gratitude to those around you and see what happens.

You might be surprised at what a big difference the little things can make.

* Kerry Roberts Gibson is an Assistant Professor in the Management Division at Babson College, Massachusetts. Kate O’Leary is the Director of Compensation, Rewards, and Client Engagement in the Office of Human Resources at Babson College. Joseph R. Weintraub is Professor of Management at Babson College.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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