Your appreciation program sucks. Here’s why.

70% of employees say they receive no appreciation at work. None, zip, zilch! With stats like this, chances are, if you’re doing anything at all for appreciation, you’re most likely doing it wrong. 

Why is appreciation so complicated? You think you are doing it, and doing it well, but your team members tell a different story. Aren’t thanks enough? Are teams just spoiled and asking for too much? 

What I see nationwide in senior living is a lot of useless appreciation programs. Well-intentioned leaders, but programs that do squat for employees. These programs add up to waste and a whole lot of resentment for everyone involved. 

The goal of appreciation programs and any effort around showing thanks, should be to make employees feel really good. Not just to check a box. In the process of expressing gratitude, leaders set off a catalyst to keep that type of commendable hard work going! In theory it should be a win-win. If it’s done right. The IF is pretty critical. The IF is where leaders fall short.

All of this points to the fact that appreciation is a mystery. In senior living, it is a decades-old unsolved mystery—a cold case. The kind where all the detective work sits in a mildewy cardboard box in the corner of a basement somewhere. Collecting dust. A mystery that, if solved, would no doubt help the out-of-control staffing crisis and the gushing turnover bleed from being the norm in this field. 

It’s time to blow the dust off the lid and solve this mystery, once and for all. 

It’s elementary, my dear Watson. 

Or is it? It’s tricky enough stuff that we need our very own expert to crack the case on appreciation. 

Enter Dr. Paul White, psychologist, speaker, consultant, and author, whose passion, by the way, is “making work relationships work.” (No wonder I like him so much. Can’t have good culture without good relationships!) Dr. White co-wrote the book, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. I’ve linked it here, and I notice it’s on sale—hint, hint. My copy has neon tabs galore poking out of it and at least half the pages have been folded over for reference. The sign of a beloved book, for sure. 

According to Dr. White, people express and receive appreciation in different ways, even at work. If you try to express appreciation in ways that aren’t meaningful to your co-workers, they may not feel valued at all. 

Bingo. This is our first clue. 

Each member of your team has their own unique appreciation preference. No more cooking up the same dish for everybody, no more one-size-fits-all. No wonder your appreciation program sucks. It’s fatal flaw is it’s too generic. 

Appreciation needs to be specific, personalized, and genuine. 

The five unique languages of appreciation in the workplace are words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Expressing appreciation is a guessing game until you get to know what each employee’s preference is, then you can tailor your expression of appreciation to their preference. Then, BOOM! They feel good, you feel good, and they continue to work at a high level for you.

The most common language of appreciation is words of affirmation. So, for the majority of people, the best way to share appreciation is to thank them specifically for what they have done. A personalized note or a one-on-one conversation using genuine words of affirmation and specific details as to why that person totally rocks is the most impactful approach for most and would drastically cut down that icky 70% figure from above.

Maybe this is less of a mystery than I thought. Seems appreciation is more overlooked and over-generalized than it is mysterious.

When in doubt, just make it count.  

It may surprise you to learn that most people do not consider a gift card as a form of appreciation. Gift cards have become the go-to gift for just about any occasion. Because they’re so easy! You can even have a stack of gift cards in your desk, ready to go at a moment’s notice! You may be scratching your head a bit at this, because it is a really nice gesture and shouldn’t that be enough, for crying out loud?! I understand your frustration, but easy is overrated in this instance. Your team doesn’t want easy. They want meaningful. They want fulfillment. Save your easy, corner-cutting for something other than appreciating your team members. Now, more than ever, they need genuine appreciation from you.

Take the mystery away and get to know your team members.

Become the Sherlock Holmes of appreciation. Talk to your team members about how they like to receive appreciation. Ask them questions about what makes them feel best. Observe which employees respond to which approaches and notice the ways they reach out to you. People often communicate appreciation in the way they would like to receive appreciation. If you need practice, start with your spouse and find out their preference and adjust the way in which you appreciate them. (You’re welcome for that, by the way!)

This leads me back to something I always marvel at. Gosh, think of all the problems that vanish if you truly get to know the people you lead.