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The psychology behind effective workplace appreciation

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Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager
2019-01-14

One of the biggest challenges for many employees in the workplace is not knowing if they’re doing a good job.

If you’re working for a boss who doesn’t show much appreciation or recognition of your efforts, it can be hard to know for sure.

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Most workers don’t expect a constant stream of praise every day, but it’s important to receive some form of appreciation in the workplace. Particularly at milestone moments in your career.

We know that employees value and need a certain level of workplace appreciation. But what’s the psychology behind workplace appreciation? Why do we respond so strongly to praise and recognition from our superiors?

Let’s look at why workplace appreciation is so important for employees and the potential impact this can have on your organisation.

The psychology of appreciation

We know how we feel in those moments when someone gives us praise or public recognition for our work. There’s generally an immediate boost of happiness and other positive feelings.

But what is actually going on in the brain? What’s happening at a deeper level?

Neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD, explains exactly which areas of the brain are affected by the emotions of appreciation and gratitude. And what this mean for an individual.

According to Dr Korb, feelings of gratitude create high levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which controls basic bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, metabolism and (very important) our stress levels.

When we’re shown appreciation, it also directly activates the areas of the brain associated with dopamine – the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter. Dopamine make us feel good. And it’s also important for motivating us to take action.

Increases in dopamine make you more likely to do the thing you just did. It’s the brain saying, “Oh, do that again,” Dr Korb explains.

When you put it all together, you can see how workplace appreciation can really have a huge impact on a person’s happiness and wellbeing, in both the immediate moment and more long term.

Greater engagement and job satisfaction

In addition to increased happiness and wellbeing, feeling appreciated in the workplace is crucial for employee motivation and satisfaction.

David Sturt, leader of the O.C. Tanner Institute, recently conducted studies involving nearly 3,500 employees, from startups to Fortune 100 companies, to explore the link between recognition in the workplace and employee engagement.

In his article for Harvard Business Review, Sturt explains how one simple action – recognising great work – can dramatically increase any manager’s success in gaining the support and engagement of their team.

"Seven out of 10 employees who report they’ve received some form of appreciation from their supervisors say they’re happy with their jobs. Without that recognition, just 39% say they’re satisfied," he says.

That’s a huge difference in levels of job satisfaction for workers, based on just one factor: appreciation.

The frequency of recognition also plays a role in employee engagement.

Among employees who were called out for great work in the past month, 80% feel fulfilled at work.

That number declines sharply with time: 75% satisfied (recognized in the past 1-2 months); 71% (past 3-5 months); 69% (past 6-12 months); 51% (past 1-2 years); 42% (more than 2 years ago).

According to Sturt, it’s important to show appreciation and/or recognition right away, then consistently and regularly over time. The more frequently you show team members appreciation and recognition, the more engaged, motivated and productive they’ll be.

Better employee-manager relationships

With this, managers can also expect to form more positive working relationships with their staff.

In Sturt’s studies, the results showed a strong correlation between loyalty and acknowledgment. In companies where employees reported strong employee recognition, 87% felt “a strong relationship” with their direct manager.

In contrast, only 51% of employees working for companies with low recognition practices reported a strong employee-manager bond.

Again, frequency of appreciation is an important factor.

For those who say they receive some form of appreciation more than once a month, 82% describe a strong bond with their bosses. When that occurrence drops to less than once a month, only 63% feel those strong ties.

So if you really want to build your connection with your team, think about how you can let each person know their work is appreciated and valued – and keep that gratitude going on a regular basis.

Increased morale across the organisation

We know that receiving recognition and appreciation for our work makes us more happy, engaged and connected to our boss.

But there’s something else that occurs in the work environment that’s really interesting.

Showing appreciation in the workplace doesn’t just have a positive effect on the individual receiving praise – it can have a positive impact on staff in general.

Sturt’s studies revealed that recognition had a powerful effect on those being recognised, as well as a significant impact on peers who witnessed their colleague being rewarded.

By publicly presenting some employees with a ‘years of service’ award, managers could increase all employees’ sense that the organization cared about them,” he explains.

In this way, showing appreciation for your employees’ efforts will help to build a stronger, more positive work culture, right across the organisation.

Gratitude creates good feelings, cheerful memories, better self-esteem, feeling more relaxed and more optimistic. All of these emotions creates a pay it forward and “we’re in this together” mentality in the workplace.

Wow. Something as simple as a sincere ‘thank you’ from time to time can certainly go a long way!

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