The Power of Appreciation

Gratitude is a part of our everyday lives, but it's scarce at the office---which has serious business consequences. Why do so many leaders resist a simple thank-you?

Hey, you’re here! Thank you for coming to this website and reading this article. I mean it. You have a lot of choices about what to read online—news stories, political discussions, slideshows of adorable kittens wearing sailor hats and boxing gloves. But you took a moment to do some thinking about leadership, and I appreciate it.

We give all these creative, logical reasons for not acknowledging people. Set them aside and do it anyway.

If that comes off as insincere—a light way of starting a blog post instead of a genuine thank-you—then that only sheds light on the problem that Judith W. Umlas has been working on. Umlas, senior vice president at the International Institute for Learning, is the author of two books about the importance of expressing gratitude in the workplace, 2007’s The Power of Acknowledgment and this year’s Grateful Leadership. Her goal in both books is to argue that a lot of the good manners we learn in our everyday lives tend to get abandoned at the doors of our offices. That has consequences beyond vague concerns that our workplaces aren’t as “nice” as they could be. In Grateful Leadership, Umlas points to a Gallup survey that says employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are three times more likely to quit in the next year, and that U.S. annual productivity losses from disengaged workers totals $300 billion.

What gives? “The fish doesn’t know the water it’s swimming in—we’re not aware of the air we’re breathing,” Umlas told me. “Similarly, with acknowledgements and gratitude, it’s something that’s so basic to our humanity that we just never think to ask for it if it’s missing. But people leave companies all the time if they don’t feel appreciated.”

The kind of appreciation Umlas is talking about goes further than the occasional “good job!” you deliver to an employee, a staff award program, or even a promotion. What truly affects and energizes an employee is regular and sincere expressions of appreciation. That’s not easy for leaders to do, because many worry it will encourage more demands (or slacking) from workers, or sow jealousy among those who feel they’re less appreciated. (One of her “5 Cs” of grateful leadership is “courage”—that is, finding the nerve to deliver this kind of appreciation.) Umlas says not to worry—sincerity feeds on itself and builds a stronger, more productive culture over time.

“We give all these creative, logical reasons for not acknowledging people,” she says. “‘Oh, they’re gonna ask me for a raise,’ or ‘They’re gonna think I’m a phony,’ or ‘They won’t do better than they’re doing because they think they’re good enough.’ We all have our reasons. Set them aside and do it anyway.”

Umlas—who’ll speak at this year’s ASAE Executive Leadership Forum—says the need for a culture of acknowledgment and gratitude is just as pronounced at associations as at for-profits. Indeed, associations’ volunteer structure makes the need even more pressing.

“I refer to acknowledgments as a double paycheck—there’s the paycheck you get every two weeks. But acknowledgement or appreciation—you need that just as urgently as the money,” she says. “In the world of associations, where you do have volunteers, it’s absolutely critical, because it’s their single paycheck. Yes, there is their desire to support the cause, but they don’t get a regular paycheck for this.”

Umlas’ version of gratitude is a habit—which, like hitting the gym, isn’t always easy to acquire. Is it habit that you cultivate in your organization? How did you do it, and what effects has it had for you, your staff, or your members?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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