We can readily understand the benefits of recognizing co-workers for their valuable contribution at work. But experts say we should also show appreciation as well as recognition to our co-workers. Isn’t that the same thing? Why not? What’s the difference? Several similar terms can be interpreted in different ways. These include appreciation, recognition, praise, gratitude, compliment. So, let’s look at these terms to see why appreciation is important.
Recognition is the timely, informal or formal acknowledgement of a person’s or team’s behavior, effort, or business result which has clearly been beyond normal expectations and that supports the organization’s goals and values. Recognition can be offered by a boss or by fellow team members – peers – in all office, remote or hybrid workplaces. You can even recognize your boss for their contribution beyond normal expectations.
Let’s think it about it a little further. You recognize someone after they have done something. It is based on their effort and/or results, depending on the situation. Note that research has found that people rarely want to be recognized for the result, but instead the process and effort that went into producing the result.
The recognition can be given formally – such as through an award, a promotion or a prize. Other times it can be given informally such as through a verbal ‘thank you’ in a team meeting, or privately via a handwritten note, a letter or email. Read here about how to recognize your employees for great work.
Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. –Voltaire (1694-1778), French writer, philosopher, satirist, and historian.
There’s an important difference between appreciation and recognition. Appreciation is based on the quality of a person’s character. It is about their worth as a colleague and human being. In simple terms, recognition is about what people do, while appreciation is about who they are. Expert consultant Mike Robbins points out:
This distinction matters because recognition and appreciation are given for different reasons. Even when people succeed, inevitably there will be failures and challenges along the way; depending on the project, there may not even be tangible results to point to. If you focus solely on positive outcomes, on recognition, you miss out on lots of opportunities to connect with and support your team members — to appreciate them.
Psychologist Joachim Krueger states that appreciation conveys the message that you understand and respect the other person, and you value their contribution: “Appreciation is neither praise nor gratitude…Unlike praise, appreciation does not seek to dominate; unlike gratitude, it does not submit [it is not submissive].”
Krueger believes appreciation requires perspective-taking; you need to understand what the other person values in their work, and what personal values they have committed to it. Perspective-taking is the ability to take someone else’s viewpoint into account. Krueger also believes that to express appreciation well, you should go beyond the superficial “good job” or “well done” of praise.
Examples of appreciation
- I appreciate your enthusiasm ,
- I’m always impressed by your work ethic.
- Glad you always lift the enthusiasm of your teammates.
- Thank you for doing your best every day.
- Thanks for your hard work and dedication to the team. Greatly appreciated!
Praise is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as expressing your enthusiastic approval of someone [including your team] or something. You can do this by saying or writing good things about them.
Praise can often be used to acknowledge the good points in another person, but not necessarily what we receive from them. In this sense, it’s mostly a one-way interaction. When praising another person, be specific about what and why you are praising.
Examples of praise
- You did a great job getting that project started.
- You’re getting better at this task every time you do it.
- Keep up your good work on the project schedule. We’re able to move much faster now on this.
- Great job! You’ve easily met the deadline.
- Excellent work! I can now send this to the committee for their approval.
- You’re a big help to the team’s media relations performance!
In feeling gratitude, you feel that you have gained a positive outcome, and that there is an external source for that good outcome. Gratitude is a spontaneous feeling, but research increasingly demonstrates its value as a practice. The emotion generates a positive feeling that both reaches inward and extends outward: You can communicate your gratitude to another person or they can express it to you. As a social emotion, your expression of gratitude towards the other person greatly increases its benefits within you and within the other person.
Research shows that people underestimate how much recipients appreciate gratitude. In one study, participants wrote gratitude letters expressing their appreciation to someone. The recipients of these letters were then asked how they felt receiving them. When the researchers compared recipients’ feelings to senders’ expectations, they found that senders underestimated how positive recipients would feel and overestimated how awkward they would feel. So, don’t let overly pessimistic beliefs prevent you from doing others an act of kindness.
A compliment is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “a polite remark that you say to someone to show you like their appearance, appreciate their qualities, or approve of what they have done.” Offering a compliment has been shown to benefit both the giver and receiver. Giving a compliment boosts our own happiness – especially during this time of the extended global Covid pandemic, which seems to be lasting forever.
Social connection plays an important workplace role. Studies have found that giving compliments created a stronger social connection than receiving compliments because giving them encouraged people to focus on the other person. Giving a thoughtful, genuine compliment requires us to think about someone else — their mental state, behavior, personality, thoughts, and feelings. Thinking about other people is often a precondition to feeling connected to them. In this way, compliments can become a social glue, enhancing connections and positivity in relationships, and making us happier.
However, people often hesitate to give compliments. The idea of approaching someone and saying something nice can trigger social anxiety and discomfort, research shows. We assume the other person will feel uncomfortable and even irritated by receiving a compliment, when the opposite is true. So, don’t hold back when you have the opportunity to give a compliment.
If you have previously been reluctant to compliment people because you aren’t sure if you can convey compliments skillfully enough, and your anxiety makes you pessimistic about the shortcomings of your messages, think again. Try this advice in a 2021 HBR article:
…look at your compliments the same way the recipient does, focusing less on how competently you are conveying them and more on the warmth they convey. Indeed, one experiment found that focusing on the warmth, sincerity, and friendliness their compliments convey increases people’s interest in giving compliments to others.
Does giving compliments too often devalue one’s compliments or make them seem less sincere? Research suggests this is simply not the case. Kind words do not become tired words. Just as people must eat regularly to satisfy their biological needs, the fundamental need to be seen, recognized, and appreciated by others, as it turns out, is a recurring need at work and in life.
If you encounter a co-worker who you don’t know, you can still compliment them on some aspect mentioned above, for example, their appearance, their qualities, or what they have done. Firstly, check their body language to decide if they seem open to being approached. Keep it brief, sincere and positive. Then move on, so the other person is reassured that you don’t have an agenda.
If you’re complimenting someone you know at work, try to make it specific to them, and acknowledge the actions they took: “I like what you did with that old computer: It’s better to recycle the computer rather than just turf it out.” In a 2019 HBR article, Christopher Littlefield suggests a checklist for giving a compliment:
- be authentic
- be specific
- acknowledge the process
- and share the impact you felt on perceiving their action or attitude.
Need some ideas for compliments? This blog written by Adie Marais from empuls gives you “70+ Best Compliments for Coworkers at the Workplace.”
A famous example of enduring acts of appreciation from a leader
In essence, building a culture of appreciation is largely about small actions that confirm you don’t take the people around you for granted. There are several famous stories of US business leaders who sent a handwritten note every day in appreciation to individuals in a personal and sincere way.
Image, right: Doug Conant.
A renowned example is former Campbell Soups CEO, Doug Conant. He sent about 30,000 handwritten notes over a decade to employees at all levels. He and his executive assistants used to spend around 30 to 60 minutes a day scanning his mail and their company’s internal website looking for news of people who had made a difference at Campbell’s. Conant felt that writing these notes was a worthwhile commitment: “…in my experience, they build goodwill and lead to higher productivity.”
He said this lets them know he was personally paying attention and giving them such positive feedback. Recipients appreciate the extra effort in handwriting a note instead of sending an electronic alternative. Handwritten notes are the best form of contact for those who don’t have a work computer. Conant also followed up opportunities to write to business contacts after he met them.
Guidelines on giving appreciation
Timely. Appreciation is most effective when it’s timely — and when the receiver is likely to be receptive to it. The best time is immediately after you see the behavior or attitude expressed. The impact drops away immediately if you delay. Use team meetings and daily huddles to take a quick moment to appreciate contributions by both individuals as well as the whole team.
Specific. Don’t give vague or general praise. Detail what you appreciate. Don’t stop at ‘thank you.’ Tie it to something tangible. As with giving feedback or instructions, when you praise someone, you want to share it in a way that doesn’t leave the person with any questions. For example, don’t say things like “I am proud of you as a leading member of our team.” Explain why.
Sincere. You should only ever give sincere praise. People can tell instantly when it is not fully genuine. Vague or generalized praise tends to sound insincere. Then they will shrug it off or suspect your motive. One way to bypass that resistance is to be specific, as above.
Appropriate language: Yes, there is such a thing as appropriate appreciation language. Words like ‘really,’ ‘very,’ and ‘I believe’ tend to dilute the impact of your communication. Replacing those words with specifics and phrasing them in active voice makes for a stronger, more compelling outcome.
Focus on the process, not just the result. Research has found that people rarely want to be recognized for the result, but instead, for the process and effort that went into producing the result. Compliments that only focus on the result often trigger a concern for the receiver of not being able to produce the same result in the future. Show them that you appreciate the time, sacrifice, creativity, or care that went into their work.
Phil, I appreciate so much the success of the event you put together for the client. You clearly put in a lot of hours and creativity into this. Thank you for making this such a great event.
Share the impact. When we give appreciation to someone, we are actually sharing how their action impacted us. If you want to appreciate with impact, give the person a window into what you experienced and how it impacted you or others. Consider sharing how their leadership impacts the team, their work impacts the company’s results, or how their attitude impacts the team environment.
Jane, I want to let you know I really appreciate how you lead our team. On my last team, I never wanted to share ideas in case my boss shot them down. Since day one, I watched how you encouraged all of us to speak up and share ideas, and I felt comfortable to take risks. I really enjoy working for you and feel like I am growing every day. Thank you.
Employers are realizing the importance of worker happiness and creating a positive workspace, and some may not want to offer too much appreciation. Be balanced about it.
Like everything in life and work, practice improves delivery. Theoretically, appreciation should evolve naturally to everyone but it rarely does. You become aware of hidden nuances over time. Go and appreciate someone confidently, and learn from the experience.
Is all this relevant to professional communicators? Yes, indeed! These types of actions are the foundation for developing positive relationships with others – for ourselves (it’s the ‘relations’ in ‘public relations’) – as well as giving a shining example and reminder to everyone else.
How to write an effective thank-you note
Useful guidelines for a thank-you note:
- Explain the context. “We’ve been so busy lately, I haven’t had time to think about the way you set a great example to your teammates in checking that they have…” or seeing them being kind to another person.
- Address the employee by name. The last thing that you want is for these notes to sound like they are written to a tired formula. Addressing your employee by name at more than one point in the letter as well as at the start personalizes it more to them.
- Look to the future. Just as you should, for instance, emphasize their example to others, you should also show how positive you are about their future role in the workplace.
- Sign the letter by hand. It’s okay to type a letter up and print it for the recipient, but always put your real signature to the note. Again, this is a personal touch and shows your employee/colleague that they aren’t receiving a generic thank you note.
- Use good stationery. If you have high-quality paper with your company’s logo on it, or fancy thank-you cards that can be placed in envelopes, use them. Again, these small details back up your message and show that you have put good thought into your appreciation note. The recipient will also feel delighted in being able to show your tangible act of kindness to their family.
If you want to find out more on how and when to recognize employees for good work, you are welcome to buy my helpful ebook, Employee Recognition: The secret to great team performance, which explains how to implement this fabulous activity in your team or within your whole organization.