How Appreciating Purposeful Work Drives Profits

08/16/2017 04:15 pm ET

Do you ever feel underappreciated at work? According to O.C. Tanner, the world’s leading employee recognition company, only 12 percent of employees say they receive frequent appreciation for their work.

When people are appreciated, studies show, they work harder, produce better-quality work, remain with the company longer, and feel more positive about their employer. Based on these findings, it is not surprising that the reward and recognition industry has boomed over the past three decades. Organizations and leaders agree that reinforcing great work matters, and they are paying handsomely to businesses that help them do it right. Plaques, pins, gift cards and, most importantly, management training represent some of the basic recognition tools companies are incorporating into their people engagement initiatives.

It’s wonderful that so many organizations are taking steps to appreciate their people. However, there is an accelerator to appreciation that few people are talking about: recognizing work connected to purpose, both personally and organizationally.

Recognizing employees for great work is important, but appreciating them for work that is personally meaningful to them kick-starts people engagement. In fact, when a person is recognized for important accomplishments in his or her life, the brain naturally produces large doses of serotonin, the chemical responsible for happiness.

Considering that decades of research supports the idea that happier and more engaged people equates to better business results, it’s clear that purposeful appreciation is directly linked to higher sales and profits in all businesses.

To further validate this transformational dynamic, I reached out to Todd Nordstrom, recognition expert and coauthor of the new book Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness.

Nordstrom works for the O.C. Tanner Institute, the research, publishing and training arm of O.C. Tanner. The company has conducted some of the world’s largest workplace studies, and it publishes its findings in books such as Appreciate and in articles, white papers and blogs. The institute also incorporates these findings into the company’s corporate training.

Louis Efron: In your new book Appreciate, you reveal the outcome of a study that shows recognition is the number-one thing employees say their boss could give them to inspire great work. Could you explain this further?

Todd Nordstrom: Yeah, it’s fascinating stuff. When you consider all the different levers a leader could pull to inspire people to give their best effort, our study showed that recognition is not just the number-one thing employees want from leaders, but it’s three times more wanted than any other answer we received from employees. Think about that. “Recognition” was given as an answer three times more often than “promotion,” “pay raise” or “autonomy.”

LE: How do appreciation and purpose work together to create more engaged people and better business results?

TN: There are two answers to that question. The first would be focused on an individual’s purpose. We all ask ourselves at some point why we’re here—we ask, “What’s my purpose.” And, interestingly enough, I think most of us identify with our purpose at a young age but don’t really know how to communicate it.

Think back to when you were a kid. Most likely, you had a teacher, coach or friend who saw something in you and said something to you about it—that person recognized a unique skill or ability. And it was like they truly understood you. Their words impacted you. They made you want to become more of the thing they were recognizing you for. This is why appreciation is so powerful—it inspires us to become the best version of our unique self and truly live up to our purpose.

LE: How do appreciation and purpose connect on an organizational level?

TN: That’s the second part of the answer, Louis. Everyone jokes about how mission, vision and values statements hang on the walls, and no one in the company even knows why they are there. Put all of these statements together and you probably get pretty close to a company’s definition of purpose. So, we’ve got all of these companies trying to figure out how to communicate the mission, vision and values statements over and over to their teams. And, the answer to getting every employee to understand the mission, the vision, the values and the purpose is through appreciation.

Teach people, managers, colleagues and leaders how to properly recognize people for their effort and their results. Teach them the language of appreciation so when they’re recognizing team members, they’re not just saying, “Hey, good job, Louis,” but instead they’re relating their recognition to the specific mission, vision, values or purpose of the organization. “Hey, Louis, your commitment to finishing the last project was awesome. We value your innovative thinking, and if we’re truly going to improve the lives of our customers, we all need to have that commitment. Thank you. Great work.”

LE: While you were researching and conducting interviews for your book, is there anything specific you learned about how purpose and appreciation come together to accelerate engagement?

TN: I talked to people from all over the world for this book, and I was amazed by how emotional people became when I asked them about the moments when someone recognized their unique talent or skill. That may not sound like such a prolific statement until you consider the context surrounding it. I get compliments all the time from people. I’ve had people praise me for drives on a golf course. I’ve had people praise me for being a good listener. And that feels good, but I don’t get emotional about it. However, when someone recognizes you for something you identify as your purpose, it’s a powerful thing.

LE: In closing, what can leaders start doing today to accelerate people engagement and drive better business results through purposeful appreciation?

TN: Simple. Leaders can ask their people what is most important to them in life and how that plays into what they do best at work, take note, then look for opportunities to accelerate appreciation by recognizing such work as often as possible.

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