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. Realizing it didn’t even include a thank-you or a congratulations, Rowen rolls his eyes.
While most companies 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 to individuals who’ve, say, created and led an important new initiative, “embodied” the organization’s values in their behavior, or had a significant impact. Yet that approach has problems too: Awards can be seen as an elite opportunity for a chosen few — and leave the majority of the workforce 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 organizations, 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 took a deep dive within an organization to see how organizational efforts to show appreciation and gratitude were perceived. In that project we engaged with both employees and managers through focus groups, survey questions, and learning sessions. And what we discovered was that even though bosses feel it’s challenging to show their staff appreciation, the employees think it’s actually pretty simple.