Employee engagement is a major goal for many leaders (and most HR professionals). But employee recognition has provided disappointing results. Authentic appreciation is the key missing component – and knowing how employees want to be shown appreciation is critical.
A core concept foundational to demonstrating authentic appreciation is that not everyone wants to be shown appreciation in the same ways. Some people like verbal praise, but others feel valued when you spend time with them. A number of employees feel supported by receiving some help when they are overwhelmed, while others are encouraged if you bring in their favorite cup of coffee or a snack.
Over 100,000 employees have taken the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory and recently the data from the responses of those who have taken the inventory were analyzed. The Motivating by Appreciation Inventory is an online assessment that identifies the various ways individuals like to be shown appreciation at work and is based on the concepts from The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, The inventory identifies an individuals’ primary language of appreciation, secondary language of appreciation, and their least valued appreciation language.
Words of Affirmation are Most Desired
Employees overwhelmingly choose receiving Words of Affirmation as the primary way they like to be shown appreciation in the workplace. Almost half of all employees (over 45%) prefer receiving verbal praise as their primary language of appreciation.
Why do Words of Affirmation seem to be so desired by employees? Two primary reasons have surfaced. First, the high use of words seem to be partially related to enculturation—words have been the way encouragement has been communicated in the workplace historically. Thus it appears using words is partially a learned behavior. Secondly, showing appreciation through words typically is fairly easy to do, and takes less effort than some of the other appreciation languages; thus, using verbal language is easy to use and also to teach to others.
Tangible Gifts are the Least Desired
Again, the evidence is clear. When asked to compare the various Languages of Appreciation in importance to them, employees overwhelmingly don’t choose tangible rewards as the primary way they want to be shown appreciation. In fact, less than 10% of employees identify tangible gifts as their primary language of appreciation. To look at the issue from the opposite perspective, employees choose tangible gifts as their least valued way to be shown appreciation almost 70% of the time.
But interpreting the data correctly is important. Employees aren’t saying they don’t want tangible rewards (gift cards, going out to eat, earning a trip) for doing good work — and they clearly won’t refuse receiving a gift! But what the data show is that when choosing between Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, or an Act of Service—receiving a gift is far less meaningful than appreciation communicated through these actions. For example, often employees comment, “If I receive some gift but I never hear any praise, no one stops to see how I’m doing, or I never get any help—the gift feels really superficial.”
This is clearly a loud and important message for leaders, managers & HR professionals to hear – if you are trying to use rewards to communicate appreciation to your employees, you are not only missing the mark, you are probably wasting a lot of money!
Quality Time is an Important Secondary Language
While Acts of Service and Quality Time are frequently chosen at a similar rate by employees as their primary language (between 20% – 25% of the time), some additional data sheds further light on these two appreciation languages.
First, when looking at what language individuals choose as their secondary appreciation language, Quality Time is preferred over Acts of Service. Additionally, Quality Time is the least valued language for about 7% of the population, but Acts of Service is more frequently chosen as the least valued way to be shown appreciation at over twice that rate. Thus, overall, Quality Time appears to be people’s second most desired way to be shown appreciation.
Finally, it should be noted that there is a slight gender difference, with men preferring Acts of Service slightly more, while women chose Quality Time more frequently. Even though the difference is slight, it is notable. Interestingly, this is the only gender difference found in the frequency of which appreciation languages women and men prefer.
Knowing trends across the workforce can be helpful in understanding your employees’ desires for how to be shown appreciation for the work they do. But practically speaking, the most important information is to know how your individual team members desire to be appreciated—and then actively communicate appreciation in the language and actions most important to them.
Secondly, quit thinking that receiving rewards is highly meaningful to employees – tangible gifts aren’t the primary way over 90% of employees want to be shown appreciation. Rather, they would prefer some individual time and attention, help on tasks (especially on time-sensitive projects), and to hear specifically what you appreciate about them. Listen up! 100,000+ employees are talking to you!
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NOTE: A full report of this research has been accepted for publication in the Strategic HR Review and will be published later this year.