getting appreciation right

Member+AppreciationOn 2nd March 2018, United Airlines President Scott Kirby attempted to spice up the life of his employees by introducing a new bonus scheme. This scheme took away the performance incentive program that awarded workers up to $375 for each quarter that the airline met operational goals. Instead, they replaced it with an all-new exciting lottery program that rewarded a few workers at random. The eligible population for the lottery constituted of employees with a perfect attendance record for that quarter. These employees would be entered into a lottery system that doled out big prizes, including $100,000 cash and a Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. Other prizes included Mercedes sedans (10 winners), a choice between a vacation package or $20,000 (20 winners), a similar choice at the $10,000 level (30 winners) and a variety of other cash prizes. In short, 1361 employees would receive some kind of bonus and over 78,000 employees would get nothing. If this was Scott Kirby’s appreciation day gift to the employees at United Airlines, he surely goofed that one up.

Not surprisingly, United faced tremendous backlash and within three days withdrew the scheme promising to come up with another post soliciting inputs from all levels in the organization.  This is only the most recent debacle when it comes to appreciation but organizations have been struggling to get appreciation right for a long time now. A mere look at the variety of appreciation mechanisms that exists makes one wonder why most employees still feel under-appreciated.

The essential elements of good appreciation

The essential elements of good appreciation are the same as that of feedback. They both work around the same purpose, which is to reinforce positive behavior and discourage unproductive behavior. Let’s take a quick look at these elements:

  1. Timely: The right time to appreciate someone is immediately after you observe the behavior. The impact of appreciation decreases exponentially as the time lag between the action and appreciation increases. You may give out awards quarterly, half-yearly or annually but a quick ‘thank you’ doesn’t need an auspicious occasion. There is such a thing as the right place and time for appreciation. Use team meetings and daily huddles to take a quick moment to appreciate contributions by both individuals and the team as a whole.
  1. Precise and tied to impact: Generic compliments serve little purpose. A good compliment spells out what it is that you appreciate. Don’t stop at thank you. Expand on the action. It takes a little effort but multiplies the effect many times over. Also, don’t forget to mention how the action led to a positive impact and quantify the impact if you can. Tie it to something tangible.
  1. Sincere:  You should only ever give praise that you actually mean. One can smell insincere appreciation from a mile away. If it doesn’t sound sincere, it is likely that the receiver will shrug it off or suspect that there is an underlying motive. One way to bypass that resistance is to be specific. Praise that is vague tends to sound insincere. If your appreciation covers point 1 & 2, you are likely more believable.
  1. Right language: Yes, there is such a thing as appropriate appreciation language. Words like ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘I believe’ tend to dilute the impact of the compliment. Replacing those words with specifics and phrasing them in active voice makes for a stronger, more compelling compliment.
  1. Non-monetary: Appreciation doesn’t have to be monetary. Having cash, gift vouchers and other monetary offerings often make the process more cumbersome. Research also shows that non-monetary appreciation costs less, has a longer shelf life and goes a long way in motivating people. Find ways to appreciate people by providing increased visibility to leadership and praise from the manager.

Given the importance organizations have begun to lay on employee happiness and creating a positive workspace, there is a growing concern on how much appreciation is too much. Some managers may feel that organizations have begun to pay undue stress on appreciation. There is research demonstrating that too much praise doesn’t improve behavior but we’re a long way from getting there so it isn’t something we need to worry about at this point of time.

Like everything in life and work, practice makes one perfect. The art of appreciation sounds easier than it is. One would believe it comes naturally to everyone but it rarely does. There are hidden nuances that get finer with time. It is ok to get it wrong the first few times. You may find yourself not giving enough context or using the wrong occasion. Some employees may prefer receiving compliments in public while some appreciate it more when delivered verbally in a 1:1 conversation. Over time, one figures that appreciation is as much art as it is science. Don’t let artificial constraint hold you back. Go and appreciate someone today. Did I also mention that appreciation is as good for the giver as to the receiver?

P.S. This post was first published here.

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