How to be an appreciative leader (it’s more than it seems!)

By Jane Sparrow

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about resilience, managing emotions and social connection – all of which are fundamental to our own performance and that of our teams. This, of course, is always true, but it’s particularly pertinent right now as we continue to face so much challenge each day. 

There’s something else that is also critical right now and actually forms a part of all three of these things – appreciation. As a leader or people manager, if appreciation isn’t top of your priority list, especially right now, things are going to suffer (usually your people first and then you shortly after). And appreciation is more than you think – so read on!

Appreciation (here comes the science)

Every human being has a fundamental need to feel valued – to feel like they matter. Feeling that we have value goes part way to building a sense of purpose in life. Without a purpose, it’s hugely difficult for us as humans to find motivation. It’s certainly hard to be truly engaged in anything if we don’t feel valued by the people around us. 

Before the pandemic, a lack of employee recognition for individual contributions was the single biggest factor for British people feeling disengaged at work. Although I would expect to see this figure improve during the pandemic. We know from our work this year that when it comes to true appreciation in the workplace, there’s work to be done – there’s also more to appreciation than meets the eye…

You mean saying thank you more, right?

When we talk about appreciation, we’re talking about three key things. Firstly, it’s the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone – this is the saying ‘thank you’ part, but really importantly, not just for doing but for BEING as well (more on this below). 

Secondly, appreciation is taking an empathetic and compassionate approach in order to achieve a full understanding of a situation. This means keeping an open heart, listening deeply, asking questions (not making judgements), watching for non-verbal cues that something might not be right. 

And finally, appreciation is role modelling the behaviour where you take stock, with your team, and pause on what you’ve got to be grateful for. This includes noticing and celebrating success together, focusing on what you CAN control and tackling that together and being grateful for what each person brings to the team (as well as the weekly team doughnut delivery on a Friday that brings a smile). 

How to be a more appreciative leader 

Appreciation really is so much more than saying ‘good job’ every now and then. During the pandemic, we’ve seen appreciative leaders do really well, not only remaining resilient and high performing themselves but leading teams and companies who have done the same. They’ve done this through exercising all three aspects of appreciation, all of which are fundamental right now.

Here’s some different ideas for how to be a more appreciative leader, in every sense. 

Make it personal

You can make a thank you personal in so many different ways. For some leaders, it’s a handwritten letter or card, for others it’s an impromptu drop-in into a regular team meeting (this works brilliantly virtually!) to thank someone, for others it’s a gift chosen specifically for a certain individual. However you say thank you, make it personal and sincere. More than a thank you, think about proactively letting people know why you value them so much. Check out the famous Doug Conant, who during his 10 years at Campbell Soup Company wrote over 30,000 handwritten notes to employees (that would be found all over the world on bulletin boards and in employee cubicles alike).  

The virtual worship chair 

This has been one of my favourites in lockdown and is brilliant for creating positive emotion and team building. Everyone takes it in turns to sit in the virtual worship chair (a bespoke virtual background is nice!) whilst everyone else answers one question about them e.g. what they bring to the team that no-one else does, what we’ve learnt from them or why you matter so much to the team. Works amazingly face-to-face too (the more elaborate the actual chair the better!).

What’s important/precious to you?

Asking all of your team what is important (or precious) for them right now is a critical part of appreciating what they have got going on – in work and in life. Making this a regular part of team meetings (ideally towards the start!) as well as ongoing one to ones is essential to appreciating the stresses and strains of the wider team (and being able to act compassionately). 

I just called to say…

…nothing in particular! How often do you call your colleagues or team members just to see how they are? No work agenda, no purpose, other than connection (tell them this at the start of the call!). Call four people a week for this reason. Watch what happens. 

Being as well as doing

In parenting 101, you get taught to always praise your children for being as well as doing (so having an amazing personality, great freckles on their nose or being kind as much as smashing their maths test or helping to clear up). We need to bring the same philosophy as leaders – appreciate the people around you not just for what they do but the person they are and the impact that has. 

What’s the appreciation ‘why’ 

It’s relatively easy to say ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ but they’re wasted words if the recipient doesn’t feel there is much understanding of the work that goes on behind the scenes. If you’re showing appreciation for a job well done, explain why you believe it was such a good job and what the impact on others has been. It’s why employee of the month photos have little impact – no one knows how they got on the wall, or what they need to do to get there.

Celebrate success

Make celebrating the wins a part of every day. Start team meetings with success stories, virtual high fives for things achieved in and out of work. Have a group round of applause and dial-up the Zoom reactions. If a public thank you is appropriate, make the most of the fun, virtual appreciation techniques available! 

Recognise effort ahead of constructive critique

Appreciation is a key part of delivering successful critique. So often, employees have invested huge amounts of effort and energy into something, only to feel utterly deflated when the immediate feedback is critical. Ahead of challenging or critiquing work, always acknowledge the effort that has already gone into it and use link phrases to move onto the input – never say ‘but’…

Appreciate the bigger picture

When we’re caught up on business priorities and what needs to get done (never truer than now!), it’s easy to forget the wider impact of working life, especially at times when going above and beyond is required. Appreciate not only the effort your people make but the impact on their wider lives and recognise it appropriately. This is particularly relevant right now as millions of us continue to juggle so many balls including care, homeschooling and more. 

There’s something in it for you too

As well as being on the receiving end, let’s not forget how it makes you feel as a person when you appreciate others. Appreciating others is a great way to feel good yourself and top up your own tank of positivity, energy and serotonin. 

If you sit and write a letter to someone to appreciate them it feels like a very positive thing to do and thus also has an impact on your own personal resilience – something all leaders need right now! Back to Doug Conant – after being involved in a very serious automobile accident in July 2009, he was flooded with get-well notes from people all over Campbell Soup Company and beyond. The more supportive feedback you give to others, the more you may very well receive in return.

Appreciation is a leadership behaviour that will make you feel great, as well as those around you. Click here to download and print our appreciation cube – make it up and roll the cube with a different idea on showing your appreciation each day. Get your team to do it too and wait for the conversations it will start. You could even kick it all off on Valentines Day to kickstart the love!