Gratitude, Acknowledgment, and Positive Feedback at Work

positive feedback culturesIn our society, and particularly in the workplace, we tend to focus on faults — our own blunders and the mistakes of others. We chastise ourselves when we fail to reach the impossible standard of “perfect” and resent others for tiny missteps. With so much attention flowing towards criticism, stress, and judgment, the result is an organizational and team culture focused on what is going wrong, rather than what is going right.

This is not particularly surprising, given that humans have what scientists call the negativity bias, which means that we pay more attention to negative events and prioritize them in our minds more than positive events. Negativity bias also causes us to worry about potential negative outcomes, regret, pain, and bad news – and make decisions based on negative data, rather than positive data. This tendency to over-focus on the negative comes from evolution: historically, we had to be highly attuned to dangerous threats, such as tigers, fires, or enemies, in order to survive.

Today, we inherited this tendency from our ancestors, and the impact is that any perceived threat — whether it is a stranger following us down a dark alley, or a mistake made by a coworker that makes us look bad — is interpreted as dangerous and threatening. This causes positivity to be overshadowed by negativity, just to keep us safe. Rick Hanson, psychologist and bestselling author, famously summarized this phenomenon with a metaphor: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

How Does the Negativity Bias Impact Us at Work?

Although we have outgrown the need to be on high alert for our own survival, the negativity bias continues to have a lasting effect on our brain’s operating system — especially at work, a context deeply connected to issues of safety, security, and self-worth. For example, we quickly forget the positive feedback we receive, and the positive attributes and wins that our coworkers and employees bring and accomplish, while we remember the mistakes, blunders, and slipups as if they were playing on a big screen TV on repeat. Teflon vs. Velcro.

In fact, in relationships, studies have found that it takes five good interactions to make up for one bad one. Yet we often do exactly the reverse: we criticize and point out mistakes in others far more frequently than we offer praise, positive feedback, appreciation. It also extends to the way we treat ourselves — we skip over the ten positive comments in our performance review and overfocus on the one negative comment.

Constructive feedback has its place at work — it is how we learn, grow, and improve. The truth is our workplaces need both positive and constructive feedback for people to enjoy working together, have positive interactions, develop trust, improve results, and maintain and increase motivation.

Thanks to negativity bias, criticism and judgment come naturally, while noticing the positive in others does not. To restore balance, the solution is to intentionally give positive feedback at work. The first step (and often the most difficult) is simply noticing the positive things we, our colleagues, and our employees bring to the table. The second step is openly acknowledging the good in others by showing and communicating appreciation, celebrating wins, and generally creating a culture where we recognize a job well done.

Noticing Positive Contributions: The Benefits of Gratitude

One way to intentionally notice the positive contributions of our colleagues, our employees, and ourselves is the practice of gratitude. UC Berkeley, Harvard, and other universities have done extensive research showing how feeling and expressing gratitude changes your brain for the better. When practiced consistently, research has also shown that feeling and expressing gratitude can create new neural pathways in your brain that lead to a healthier and happier life, including the following benefits:

What’s interesting is that you don’t even need to communicate gratitude to enjoy the benefits of it. Just noticing the things you are grateful for and feeling a sense of appreciation can help you distance yourself from toxic emotions and rise above the inevitable challenging and stressful situations that face leaders today.

Acknowledging Positive Contributions: The Benefits of Expressing Appreciation at Work

While noticing and feeling gratitude provides myriad benefits for the person experiencing it, of course it is important to outwardly express that gratitude to those who are due acknowledgment. For example, a University of Texas study found that writing a simple thank you note to express gratitude for something specific led both the giver and receiver of gratitude to experience positive feelings.

Consistently showing your employees you appreciate them can improve morale, wellbeing, engagement, retention, and productivity. In fact, organizational psychologists Adam Grant and Francisco Gino led a study that found when workers feel gratitude from their manager, they get more done. Researcher Perry Geue also found that teams perform better when they think their colleagues appreciate them.

The opposite is also true. When we fail to show appreciation to those who work for us, they often become disengaged, resentful, and dissatisfied in their jobs. A Gallup study found that only one in three U.S. employees say they received recognition or praise in the last week, and those who do not feel appreciated are twice as likely to leave their jobs in the next year.

Gallup also found that the most memorable recognition comes from higher-level leaders, like the CEO or other senior executives. A few minutes of a high-power person acknowledging an employee several rungs down the hierarchy can create lasting memories for an aspiring leader.

Create a System That Makes Positive Feedback Easy to Do and Hard to Forget

We know noticing and showing appreciation is valuable to both parties — however, it is easily forgotten. This is why the practice of positive feedback needs some structure. The trick is to keep the authenticity of the message, but also incorporate structure and rhythm so you don’t simply forget to do it amid the laundry list of other priorities you have.

In the following section, you’ll find dozens of ideas for practicing appreciation and positive feedback. Choose a few that resonate most with you, and systemize it by programming reminders, downloading an app, or otherwise keeping yourself accountable to ensure that offering your appreciation is top of mind. For example, spend fifteen minutes every Friday writing thank you notes, start every team meeting with a shout out to a team member to acknowledge them for a job well done, and plan one team lunch or happy hour a month to celebrate a specific win or milestone for the team.

40 Ways to Experience Gratitude, Show Appreciation, and Communicate Positive Feedback

Here are 40 ways to practice and communicate gratitude, appreciation, and positive feedback. I’ve separated these out in three categories:

  1. Personal gratitude practices: Ways you can reap the health and happiness benefits of personal gratitude practices and inclining your mind to notice and focus on the positive.
  2. Expressing specific appreciation to others: Ways to acknowledge the value that others bring to work.
  3. Scaling gratitude: Systems and company-wide ways to recognize and appreciate your people.

Personal Gratitude Practices

  1. Gratitude Walks: If you have a busy mind, walking is a great way to start practicing gratitude. During the first five minutes of your walk, list as many things as you can that you can be grateful for. Try to move past the big things like family, and acknowledge the small things you are grateful for, like being able to enjoy a hot shower or a cup of coffee.
  2. Gratitude Jar: Every day, write down at least one unique thing you’re grateful for that happened that day and drop it into the jar. Review monthly or quarterly.
  3. Gratitude Journal: At the beginning or end of each day, journal about all that you are grateful for. Similar to the gratitude walk, try to find things both big and small to appreciate.
  4. A.M. Musings: When you wake up, before you get out of bed and before opening your phone, call to mind five things you are grateful for.
  5. Gratitude Meditation: Hold one person, event, or thing you are grateful for in your mind as you breathe. Inhale and exhale that which you are grateful for.
  6. One Minute: As soon as you sit down at your desk and before you turn your computer on, set a timer and list as many things as you can that you are grateful for.
  7. Gratitude Exercise: The next time you exercise, be consciously aware of what you are physically able to do. Not everyone can do what you do, whether it is going for a jog, taking a bike ride, or attending a yoga class. Be grateful for your legs that walk, your arms that lift weights, and your heart that beats strong.
  8. Deny Yourself Simple Pleasures: Give up simple pleasures for short periods, like warm showers or hot coffee, to enhance your gratitude for the small luxuries in your life.
  9. Connect with Your Senses: Tune into each of your senses, one at a time. Notice your sense of hearing by bringing attention to what you can hear. Appreciate your sense of hearing and all it can bring you. Notice your sense of smell and offer thanks to your olfactory system for allowing you to enjoy the fresh smell of laundry, essential oils, or freshly baked bread. Notice your sense of touch in the form of temperature, soft clothing, or any other sensations that delight your fingertips. Notice your taste buds, and all the joy your sense of taste brings you every day. Take a sip of your favorite food or drink and give thanks to your sense of smell and taste. Finally, open your eyes and take in all the colors, shapes, people, and things you are able to see around you.
  10. Gratitude Apps: Download an app, like the Gratitude app, to help you remember and track your gratitude practices.

Expressing Appreciation to Others

  1. Thank You Notes: Write a letter to someone about why you are grateful for them. Include specifics about what they did, the role they play in your life, and the impact they have on you. Make it a habit by spending fifteen minutes every Friday writing thank you notes.
  2. Compliment Often: Compliment people via any communication vehicle that is appropriate — send them an email on a presentation they led that you enjoyed, compliment someone in the hall on their new haircut, send a Slack message acknowledging a well-deserved promotion.
  3. Gratitude Sticky Notes: One-liners to show appreciation are short, sweet, and go a long way.
  4. Social Media Shout Outs: Write a heartfelt comment on your company’s intranet or the person’s preferred social media platform to thank them for something specific.
  5. Acknowledge Publicly: At the beginning of a team meeting, announce what a great job a team member did, or how much progress a colleague made on a tough project. Make it a habit by starting every team meeting with a shout out.
  6. Host a Team Celebration: When your team reaches a milestone, completes a big project, or accomplishes a goal, celebrate the specific win by throwing a party, hosting a happy hour, or taking the whole team to lunch.
  7. Promotions and Raises: So often, employees have to prove they can do a job by doing it for a year before they get the official title and salary increase. Instead, show trust and appreciation for hard-working employees by giving them the promotion they deserve when they are actually doing the job. Give comp raises regularly to ensure high-performing employees feel valued.
  8. Out to Lunch: Treat someone you appreciate to lunch or coffee. If virtual, send them lunch via DoorDash or a gift card to their favorite lunch spot to express your thanks.
  9. One a Day: Send one text, note, or Slack message daily for small tokens of gratitude.
  10. Gifts: Send gifts to the home of someone you want to thank. Find out what they really like and make your token of gratitude personalized to their interests.

Scaling Gratitude

  1. Employee Recognition Platform: Make it easy for everyone in your organization to express appreciation by rolling out a company-wide system, like Kudos, Snappy, Total Rewards, Bonusly, Nectar, or Motivosity. It doesn’t really matter which system you use, as long as people use it! So lead by example and make sure your leaders are power users of whatever software program you adopt.
  2. Celebrate Work Anniversaries: Thank employees for their loyalty and commitment by making a company-wide announcement, decorating their desk, or giving them a gift of service and gratitude.
  3. Weekly High Fives: 15Five is performance management software rooted in positive psychology, and their High Fives tool is a simple way to scale gratitude throughout your organization.
  4. Sponsor Volunteer Opportunities: Give team members a half day or full day off a few times a year to work with their team toward a good cause.
  5. 401K Matching: Thank your team by contributing to their retirement.
  6. Bonuses: Align bonuses with performance and thank them for a job well done through monetary compensation.
  7. Extra PTO: Give the gift of time, and give your hard workers extra vacation time. If they really exceed their goals and you want to express massive gratitude, send them on a paid vacation.
  8. Company-Sponsored Education and Training Opportunities: Thank employees by sponsoring their learning endeavors, such as degrees, coaching, or training.
  9. Bagel Fridays, Pizza Parties, Sandwich Lunches, BBQs: Set aside budget for free food at a regular cadence and/or during times of recognition.
  10. Company-sponsored memberships to gyms, or meditation/wellness apps: Thank employees by contributing to their personal wellness initiatives.
  11. Team-Building Activities: Dedicate a budget for each team to have some kind of activity at least once a quarter to thank them for their work and encourage them to connect with one another outside the daily grind. Don’t forget about virtual teams and activities!
  12. CEO Kudos: Demonstrating appreciation goes a long way from those people who hold the power. Create a program to ensure the CEO and executive team is sharing it freely and wisely.
  13. Free Thank You Notes: Make thank you notes available to everyone in the company, free of charge. You can even create a company-wide “15-Minute Friday” ritual for everyone to write them.
  14. Executive Coaching: Offer executive coaching to high potentials and anyone you’d like to thank for their hard work, to show you are invested in their leadership development.
  15. Gratitude Slack Channel: Dedicate a company-wide Slack channel to appreciation, acknowledgment, and gratitude.
  16. Annual Retreats, Biannual Offsites, or Quarterly Events: Plan events where the whole team comes together in one location to connect (this is particularly important for remote and hybrid teams).
  17. Gratitude Roundtables: Train each team leader to host gratitude roundtables, where a different team member begins each meeting by introducing a question or theme, such as family, health, or work. Then everyone in the team meeting says or adds to the chat box the thing they are grateful for within the theme.
  18. Offer Therapy: Offer therapy services for free or at a discounted rate to your employees to show them you appreciate and care about their wellbeing.
  19. Celebrate Wins: Host happy hours or parties each time the company accomplishes something impressive or reaches a goal.
  20. Employee of the Month: Create a program for your superstars to shine. Design a new Employee of the Month program, designate high-value awards, and make announcements and acknowledgments special and memorable.

Building a culture of appreciation, or positive feedback, is not about giant sweeping changes or offers to your employees. It is about small steps in your everyday work life that make a big difference, to ensure your employees are not feeling taken for granted. Which of these ideas will you add to your positive feedback practice?

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.