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Extreme Appreciation

By Scott Johnson
Illustration of Carl the yeti sitting at a desk with a computer, pointing towards a trophy.

Extreme appreciation has an extreme halo effect as people grow from showing gratitude to being permanently grateful.

What is extreme appreciation? What’s the result of extreme appreciation? Why should you care? I hope to answer these questions with some thoughts. These are my real world impressions and experiences. This is not a scholarly article. If you want to research any of these topics, there is an overload of supporting information or you could come talk to our resident positive psychologist and have a very long research-driven discussion. I hope to keep this mostly conversational and not swamp you with too much data.

Recently I’ve been observing with wonder and amazement what I would consider an emotional inflection point in my own company. This inflection point has been made manifest through a surge in palpable energy, an increase in gratitude, and more love in and around the company. Love seems like an awkward word to use in a professional setting, but it’s a fitting word for a situation where people’s days are genuinely brightened by their coworkers, where caring doesn’t stop at the end of a business day, and where people go out of their way to help each other and participate in each other’s lives. I’m not the only one who has noticed; the outside world has noticed as well. We frequently receive public comments in social media related to our company. Here is one that comes to mind, “If ‘nice’ matters the people at Motivosity can’t be beat. I’m not a customer but three separate people have done a quick favor for me, no strings attached.” Another comment came from a new employee on day 1, “When I first started meeting people from your company, I thought your happiness was nauseatingly fake, but then I realized that it’s authentic and contagious – I knew I had to be part of it.” For me personally, it’s more satisfying to see this level of energy and cohesion than even significant revenue growth. Anyone can make money. Achieving this kind of infectious, palpable culture in your organization takes a special behavior, and that behavior is 'extreme gratitude' or could be easily described as having gratitude in your DNA. That something special has a halo effect that helps individuals, companies, families, and communities.

What does this look like from the inside?

If you were a fly on the wall in our company, you might look at the flow of gratitude in the form of public praise happening and wonder how we get anything done other than sit around and pump each other up every day. For us, the average team member receives public praise 4.4 times per week – nobody is told to do this and nobody is rewarded for doing it the most. You might question if the praise gets old or if it’s authentic. You might wonder if that much public recognition gets read or even if the individuals involved care that much. You might be skeptical of its overall value. Then you would interact with the team and you’d discover high levels of collaboration, problem solving, and cohesion that comes from a strong ‘same team’ mentality. You’d notice that every single person is eager to help others and give of their time, ideas, and creativity regardless of department or title. You’d notice that people are inspired and energized by the steady stream of great accomplishments made by the people around them. You’d notice that people approach each day with positivity and energy. You’d notice a level of awareness of personal wins as well as personal needs for team members by management. You’d notice a high level of safety on teams as people are willing to seek help on problems and even share challenges and setbacks with team members without shame because they’ve built up so much trust through sharing wins together. You would sense there is something different and contagious about the environment.

How did we get here?

image with text - Gratitude causes us to focus on what’s good about our lives rather than what’s bad, shifting our outlook toward the positive. - Daniel J. Levitin

We flooded our company with gratitude. We have seen this transform individuals. People have grown from periodically showing gratitude into becoming truly grateful people. Grateful people are wonderful to be around. They are positive and optimistic people. They have expectations that match reality. Grateful people are happy to see others succeed. They see life through a lens of what is wonderful and good. Grateful people are willing to serve others in multiple facets of life. Grateful people find ways to work around the challenges and disappointments inevitably experienced in life. According to psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, “gratitude is an important and often overlooked emotion and state of mind. Gratitude causes us to focus on what’s good about our lives rather than what’s bad, shifting our outlook toward the positive”. And, those “who practice gratitude simply feel happier.”

The presence of one grateful person on the team will create three more grateful people. This is what has happened in our company. Over time, expressing gratitude through constant appreciation has become a virtuous cycle that has created even more of the same. It’s a flywheel of good will. We have our challenges, disappointments, and difficulties here as a team and as individuals, but our employee NPS score is 89, which tells me that something truly special is happening.

Where to start and how to succeed?

There is a secret to getting that flywheel spinning faster and faster. There’s also a secret to why most companies are falling short of their potential in this area. Let’s start with a little history of the ineffective efforts that have happened over time. I’m very familiar with these as I’ve implemented all of them in previous companies.

The concept of ‘employee engagement’ has been a thing for just over 40 years. In the time that ‘employee engagement’ has been measured and systems developed to improve it, it has fluctuated between 26% and 31% - not exactly stellar results. We’ve known for a long time that engagement leads to better business outcomes. Consultants and coaches alike have included employee satisfaction drivers in their programs. Programs such as service awards, milestone awards, MVP-style awards, privilege awards, spot recognitions, and points and prize solutions have aimed at engagement over the last 40 years, but I haven’t seen any of them make a significant difference. In fact, I have seen some of them lead to widespread skepticism of executive motives as the masses are forced to endure some of the public magnanimity of their corporate leaders.

There’s a secret to having an extreme appreciation environment. It starts with freedom, trust, and money. I know what you’re thinking – money represents everything bad about behavior – selfishness, greed, and extrinsic motivation. OK. Let me walk you through this because they all three have to go together.

To get the flywheel spinning, you need a powerful nudge. Our nudge secret weapon is the combination of money with the powerful motivator of loss aversion. Developing a habit of gratitude in your company is going to require an extrinsic motivator to ‘prime the pump’ as it were.. In our case, that something is cold hard cash that can only be used to appreciate the people around you and is use-it-or-lose-it on a monthly basis. This doesn’t require much money - $5 per person per month is plenty. It just needs to be 100% real – no funny money allowed. Science shows that when an individual gives something of value to another individual, the happiness of both parties increases - it’s a three for one on the emotional side of the transaction; the social boost for the giver, the receiver, and those who observe the gratitude. This is why the public aspect of gratitude is always more powerful in a company than just private appreciation. In tandem with this, it’s important that the money have actual value and full freedom of use with no limitations. I’ve seen too many corporate appreciation programs get ruined by pretending to have a form of currency such as points, but then limiting how it can be used.

image with text - Gratitude is something the entire team needs to know they have complete control over.

The second key to achieving success is freedom combined with trust. There aren’t a lot of areas where companies make employees feel trusted and fully empowered, but this area is non-negotiable. Can you imagine what a downer it is for employees to be told they must get approval in order to publicly appreciate someone? Yuk! Gratitude is something the entire team needs to know they have complete control over without someone in HR jumping on their back for doing it wrong. This means not just in who gets to thank who, but how. People will arrive at gratitude from the level they’re at; some are further along the path than others and that’s OK. In our company, we have cultivated gratitude through constant exposure to it. By surrounding a person with nonstop gratitude over an extended period of time, they absorb a more grateful default position in life. As they do, they also become contributors to the environment of gratitude that helps others do the same. One giver on a team will create three more givers over time.

Once you’ve got the currency, the freedom, and the trust in place, the halo effect of extreme appreciation can develop over time.

What’s the halo effect?

You get more of what you focus on. We’ve already talked about how developing appreciation creates an ever-accelerating cycle of gratitude, but there are other benefits as well.

Let’s start with strengths, weaknesses, confidence, and psychological safety in the individuals we work with. Did you know that being publicly recognized for awesomeness in one area will cause an individual to improve in other areas? You’ll get better performance improvement overall by focusing only on the good than you will by pointing out weaknesses. There’s always a place for constructive coaching and observation; but when coupled with recognition of the good, there’s more appetite for improvement overall.

Confidence follows this same line of thinking. Can you imagine a coach sending a team out on the field by reminding them in the locker room of everything they do poorly? I’m guessing there’s a coach out there that does this, but confidence is so important for success and positive recognition develops confidence. Frequent and positive recognition from peers and managers also causes people to feel like they’re in a safe place at work. The benefit of this is increased willingness to take chances, to learn, and to innovate – all of which provide ample opportunity for further expressions of gratitude. One of the things I’ve seen in our company is that managers who are well-practiced in expressing appreciation are great at reinforcing the good and helping people feel safe as they improve. In his classic business book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie identified expressing genuine appreciation as one of the foundational principles of dealing with people. In the book, he quotes Charles Schwab, an American steel magnate at the turn of the 20th century, on the simple secret to his success:

“I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement. There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a person as criticisms from superiors. I never criticize anyone. I believe in giving a person incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.”

image with text - What good are we doing in our communities and in the families of our employees.

What I’m most impressed with though is the halo effect of extreme gratitude that goes beyond office hours. Receiving gratitude definitely makes an impact on families as people come home happier about work. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive feedback from spouses and family members about what a huge positive our company has been on their family for various reasons. Isn’t this what we’re all about? After all is said and done, the question we need to answer is what good are we doing in our communities and in the families of our employees. I can tell you that when people leave work on cloud 9, it helps families have happy lives too. Additionally, people who have opportunities to be part of extreme appreciation at work carry that out into the community they’re part of by serving and giving back among a broader group than just coworkers. This, in turn, reflects well on the company and creates another version of that virtuous cycle, but this time it’s between the company and the community.

In summary, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my company achieve a level of gratitude that is self-sustaining and it’s been awesome to be part of. The investment we’ve made in tools and systems to accomplish this has paid off in spades as we’ve experienced such positive energy that makes lives better among the team and beyond. To start your own flywheel of gratitude may seem like a daunting task, but it really can be done in a few simple steps. First, get company leadership on board with a gratitude initiative that uses actual money to empower people at the frontline (ok...I did say ‘simple’ and sometimes this isn’t that simple depending on the personalities involved). Second, find a technology partner that can enable the gratitude initiative to succeed - that truly is simple and Motivosity can help. Third, give it about six months before gratitude really turns into habit.