Lauren Parsons shares insights from her latest book, Thriving Leaders Thriving Teams: Stop languishing. Start flourishing

People do more of what they’re praised for, which makes recognition essential in the workplace. Knowing how to deliver appreciation is a skill all leaders need to master. Rather than nagging people about what’s not been done or pointing out mistakes, highlighting the positives makes your team go the extra mile.

In your executive support role, so much of your success relies on influencing others. What better way than to leverage the power of praise and appreciation to get better outcomes and build morale while you’re at it!

The Power of Praise

Feeling appreciated is a fundamental human need. We wither without it. Biochemically, receiving praise elicits a dopamine response in the brain, creating feelings of pride and pleasure. Dopamine is highly addictive, which is why it creates repeat behaviour. It’s such a strong motivator, we’ll do anything we can to get our next hit.

Leaders can leverage this fact by ensuring they keep supplying it, through regular recognition. This is why a culture of appreciation is so vital. If your workplace isn’t creating this dopamine response, you can be sure people will start looking elsewhere to get their fix.

The challenge is, most of us notice when things go wrong, more than when they go right. Customer complaints, broken equipment and missed deadlines get our attention, whereas people doing their day-to-day tasks well sometimes gets missed. So, it’s vital that leaders become highly skilled at looking for instances of good work and make it a habit to provide on-the-spot praise.

When leaders make a point of catching people doing things right and provide positive feedback, it has three major benefits:

  • It boosts the recipient’s satisfaction and wellbeing in the moment.
  • It motivates them to repeat the behaviour.
  • It helps to buffer the times when corrective feedback is given.

The Business Case for Recognition

People who don’t feel adequately recognised at work are three times more likely to resign in the next year and eight times more likely to be actively disengaged, rowing the boat in the opposite direction of your organisation’s goals.

What if there was a highly effective, low-cost way to:

  • improve work quality by 24%
  • lower absenteeism by 27%
  • reduce staff shrinkage by 10%

Well, there is a way to do this. Simply double the number of times your leaders recognise staff!

Speaking the Right Language

To ensure your praise lands with people, you need to know how they prefer to receive praise. For decades, Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages theory has transformed thousands of relationships. More recently he’s worked together with psychologist Paul White to co-author The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

  • Words of Affirmation – using words to affirm people
  • Acts of Service – actions speak louder than words
  • Tangible Gifts – people like tangible things to feel appreciated
  • Quality Time – giving someone your undivided attention
  • Physical Touch – appropriate touch, such as high fives, pats on the back

The challenge is we all naturally (unconsciously) offer praise and appreciation in ways that we most like to receive it. The golden rule tells us to ‘treat people as you want to be treated’, but what’s even better is the platinum rule: ‘treat people as they want to be treated.’

If you understand what motivates each of your team members, you can tailor your appreciation to what works for them.

  • Giving a gift without a card to someone who really appreciates words of affirmation will leave them wanting more.
  • Writing a fantastic message to a colleague who’d prefer some practical assistance will leave them disillusioned.
  • Covering part of someone’s shift and sending them home early will fall flat if they’d really prefer a catered afternoon tea to spend quality time with their colleagues.

There are subtle differences within each of the languages above. For example, that staff member who values words of appreciation – do they want to receive them in a handwritten card, an official certificate or an email copying in their boss?

Common Ways People Prefer Recognition

  • Public recognition – in person, at a formal event, a plaque on the wall, or a staff-wide email
  • Private recognition – in person, in writing, by email, in a card, or a post-it note on their desk
  • Tangible recognition – an award, certificate, gift or bonus
  • Benefits – extra time off, improved flexibility, a nicer desk or workspace
  • Job-specific recognition – extra responsibility, leading the next project, or a promotion

Understanding people’s preferences for public vs private recognition is key. If I call Jenny up in the full staff meeting to give her a surprise award when she hates being the centre of attention, she’ll dislike the experience immensely. Conversely, if Mark prefers public recognition and I pull him aside and give him an envelope on the quiet, he’ll feel that I didn’t really mean it because I didn’t present it in front of his peers.

The benefits of public praise are that it helps reinforce your culture of recognition, seeing as it’s more visible. The more you make it a norm in your workplace, the more you can encourage even shy team members to feel comfortable with it. Just always respect their feelings and minimise awkwardness.

Introverts can still enjoy their work being publicly recognised – they just may not wish to be made a spectacle of. For example, you might gift Jenny flowers and a card one-on-one, or at a very small team meeting, then put a photo of it up on the staff noticeboard, rather than making her come up front in an all-hands meeting. This way she still receives meaningful recognition which others can witness and celebrate, but she’s not put on the spot.

The best way to figure out how your team members prefer to receive praise is simply to ask. I use a ‘Getting to Know You Questionnaire’ when new team members start and have had many clients implement this practice. When you know someone’s favourite colour, café, store, drink, artist/band, author and hobby, it’s easy to surprise someone with their favourite hot drink, take them to their favourite café or play their favourite song as they arrive. They’re also asked to rate things like public vs private recognition, the importance of tangible gifts/awards/surprises, and who they most prefer recognition from – managers, peers or customers. Ask all staff these questions and keep their answers in their file for their direct managers to refer to.

In your one-on-ones, pose questions like:

  • What’s the best recognition you’ve ever received?
  • What sort of recognition doesn’t appeal to you?
  • What does meaningful recognition look like / sound like / feel like to you?

Once you know how to speak your staff’s language of appreciation, you’ll ensure they feel valued, deliver their best and stick with you for the long term.

Key Takeaways

  • People do more of what they’re praised for, so focus on immediate, specific praise.
  • Recognition must be sincere, and be delivered in the way the person prefers to receive it, to have the biggest impact.
  • Ask staff how they like to receive praise so you can speak their language of appreciation.
Lauren Parsons is a New Zealand-based, award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who believes that everyone deserves to thrive. She is passionate about equipping and inspiring people to truly boost their health and happiness. With over 20 years’ experience in ... (Read More)

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