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.
Great advice for classroom, too!
I totally agree that verbal and public affirmation of appreciation is the most important thing to employees. On the other end of the spectrum, the least demonstration of appreciation is to marginalize their work and position (assuming they are producing good work and results) by the actions and comments of those in authority which allows other employees and colleagues to make assumptions and lead them to feel they may or should do the same.
I liked the article because I have been thinking about verbal affirmation this week since a co-worker remarked to me that she had contributed a substantial amount of information for a presentation and then when the presentation was delivered by others no public or even private acknowledgment of her contribution was given. We should not let things like this happen just because we are not supervisors and don’t feel it is our responsibility. EVERYONE should feel free to give and receive affirmations (express appreciation) when they should! A little bit goes a long way so don’t refrain, someone may really need to hear kind words and to hold back is essential an error of omisssion with significant negative consequences.
Thank you for expressing those sentiments. It needed to be said to remind all of us, employees, colleagues and employers alike.
I find this a little unlikely. Most people like verbal appreciation, but monetary appreciation is always accepted and wanted as well.
I love to be appreciated by my boss. The cost of living in this area that pay raises are a great way to show appreciation. Groceries are high, gasoline is high, entertainment is high. Everyday stuff cost so much I would even like gift cards for a job well done, especially around the holidays. I cook for my mom who has Alzheimer’s disease. I try to cook the whole meal and leave the whole including desert over to her house so other company can eat and my mom has leftovers for a couple of days. Gift cards help out during the holidays.
Great article. The only problem I see with it is that those that need to read it and make adjustments, won’t. This is especially true when a public employer follows up every directive with a threat. The managers follow suit and become critical micro-managers that take credit for the good and find someone to punish for the rest.