How to foster a culture of employee appreciation

We’ve all experienced the positive impact of being recognized, and the negative impact of neglect at work. Recognition can motivate us and make us feel more connected to our organization, while lack of recognition can cause us to disengage. This is because we don't just want to know that our work is valued, we want to know that we are valued as people too.

After Culture Amp’s Q2 pulse survey in April we had chosen “I receive appropriate recognition for good work at Culture Amp” as our org-wide focus area. This question was a high-impact driver of our organization’s overall engagement, and we were 3 percentage points below our New Tech (200-500 employees) benchmark.

While I’m not on our People team (I’m a customer success coach), I’m fortunate to work at a company that encourages positive change to come from anywhere. With support from my mentor and director, I developed an hour-long workshop based on Paul White & Gary Chapman's "5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace" & Motivation by Appreciation model.

If you’re wondering why I chose to focus on appreciation when the question asked about “recognition,” it’s a great question. A critical step in progressing from understanding employee feedback to taking action is digging into the root cause of why employees respond a certain way to a given question. In my internal discussions it was evident that part of the reason for our score was that people weren’t feeling valued on a day-to-day basis. While the distinction between recognition and appreciation is more gray than black and white, focusing on appreciation helped us focus on what was within our control every day.

Over the next month, I ran sessions of this workshop across our San Francisco office and for our global customer success team with the goal of fostering a culture of appreciation.

How the workshop improved feelings of recognition

At our next pulse survey in August, the improvement were substantial. San Francisco office’s favorability score on that same recognition question had increased 20 points, while the global customer success practice improved by 15 points. In Q2, the SF Office was 6 favorability points below our company average and 9 points below benchmark. In Q3 we scored 11 points above both the company average and benchmark. The cross-functional team that I work most closely with day-to-day to support our customers went from just 20 percent favorability in Q2 to 100 percent favorability in Q3.

The appreciation workshop was certainly not the sole cause of the improvement. Many others took on the challenge of improving employee recognition through actions like ideation sessions and creating an “amplify others” station in our office. Yet the workshop played a role.

Below are four key takeaways that we discussed in our workshop that you can bring to your organization to help employees feel valued:

1. Differentiating between employee recognition and appreciation matters

When leaders think about recognition they tend to think of promotions, raises, or celebrating results tied to business goals (for example, closing a sale or releasing a product feature). Yet if you dig below the surface, recognition shouldn’t be just about pay or status. People want to feel valued by their coworkers in the flow of their daily work. That’s where appreciation can make a difference:

  • Recognition often focuses on performance and outcomes, while appreciation focuses on how an individual went about the process.
  • Recognition focuses on value to the company, appreciation focuses on the value of an individual.
  • Recognition tends to be top-down, appreciation can come from anyone and anywhere.
  • Recognition is often limited to high performers. Not everyone can get a raise at the same time, and an individual may only get promoted every few years. Appreciation, on the other hand, is for everyone.

While formal recognition is important for an organization, appreciation is more accessible on a daily basis because it can be given to anyone, from anyone, and at any time. Showing appreciation to employees on their worst day is just as important as providing recognition on their best.   

2. Show appreciation for the small behaviors or actions, not just the big ones

One mistake that organizations make is showing appreciation for the wrong things. When we asked people to write down what they wanted to be appreciated for, I was surprised by the responses. Beyond business results, people overwhelmingly wanted to be recognized for small behaviors that they do every day, but often go unnoticed. They wanted to be recognized for trying new things (even if they fail), bringing positivity to the office, and living our values.

3. Appreciate people in their language, not yours

Chapman & White identify four languages of appreciation, in other words, four ways that people like to receive appreciation at work:

  1. Quality Time
  2. Words of Affirmation
  3. Acts of Service
  4. Tangible Gifts

For appreciation to have an impact it’s important to appreciate others in their primary language, not our own. In the San Francisco office, we took Chapman & White’s Motivation by Appreciation assessment to identify our individual languages (the survey costs $13 per person). We were split down the middle between Quality Time and Words of Affirmation, with a few Acts of Service and not a single Tangible Gifts. These results indicated that how employees were shown appreciation was different than how they wanted to be appreciated.

Within the languages themselves, there are many different ways people can be appreciated (in public vs. in private, written, vs. verbal, team vs. individual). While the languages provide a good common framework, don’t feel overly bound by them:

  • Even though we have our primary languages, there’s value in mixing it up. For example, even though nobody in our office identified Tangible Gifts as a primary language, most people would likely appreciate the occasional small baked good on their desk.
  • If you or your team doesn’t feel comfortable with the languages of appreciation, there’s still plenty of value in asking others what kind of appreciation they find motivating.

4. Most importantly, it’s not about how you appreciate me, it’s how I appreciate YOU

If you truly want to foster a culture of employee appreciation the most important thing you can do is show appreciation for someone else. This encourages organic ownership over your culture across the organization, rather than a dependency on central HR or people ops.

At the end of the workshop I asked everyone to do three simple things:

  • Step 1: Identify one person who, in the past week, has done something that you appreciate. 
  • Step 2: Write down what they did specifically, and why you appreciated it.
  • Step 3: Show your appreciation to that person within the next week. If you have a sense of their language, do so in their language. If you don’t know, ask what makes them feel valued at work.

With that in mind, I’d encourage you to take those same three steps. If you do, you’ll be well on your way to fostering a culture of appreciation at your organization.  

Josh Berman


Josh Berman is a Senior Customer Success Coach at Culture Amp. He helps organizations improve their culture through employee feedback and is driven by a passion for bringing psychology-based concepts to organizations and people to create positive change. He has a BA in psychology from the University of Michigan.

 

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Culture Amp helps you make your company a better place to work. By making it easy to collect, understand and act on employee feedback, we enable HR leaders to make better decisions, demonstrate impact, and turn company culture into a competitive edge.

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