Previously published on Forbes
Being an appreciative leader is not about giving compliments, gift cards or trophies. It’s not about recognition, rewards, kudos or “atta boys.” While these are certainly actions that can boost morale and egos, they are superficial. They’re the easy way out.
Being an appreciative leader requires an uncommon kind of thoughtfulness. It requires entering another’s world, experiencing it and then letting that person know what you’ve seen. It’s about sharing the difference that a person’s unique contribution has had on you.
Appreciation has a measurable impact on health and well-being
Appreciation is not just warm and fuzzy; it has measurable health benefits, including reducing stress and rewiring the brain. When you express appreciation and receive the same, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for your emotions. They enhance your mood immediately, making you happy from the inside. They’re what make you feel “good.”
People who feel valued also experience higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, which increases their satisfaction, motivation and engagement with their work. And because they feel valued and happier, they develop stronger relationships with the people they work with.
Here’s how Dr. Glen Fox, a neuroscientist at USC, explains it in his article, “What Can the Brain Reveal about Gratitude?”
"The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction. In other words, the data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how appreciation can lead to health benefits over time. Feeling appreciated creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us."
Keys to Becoming a More Appreciative Leader
Energy Follows Attention
We know that energy follows attention. In other words, the things you are noticing, focusing on and paying attention to are where your energy will go. So, if you remain focused on the negative, you will find more things that cause you to feel depleted, tired, irritable and angry.
By the same token, if you switch your attention to what’s good, what you appreciate and what’s working, you can direct your energy to higher ground. Your brain will become more lit up and active.
Offer How it Makes You Feel
Years ago, I was involved in a training exercise where we were instructed to conclude our appreciation statement by completing the phrase, because it makes me feel...
I found that offering how it makes you feel creates an entirely different experience, both for the appreciative leader and for the recipient. There’s nothing wrong with simply giving a compliment, like “You handled that project with amazing care and attention to collaboration.” But when you follow it up by saying, “Knowing you approach your work in this way makes me feel confident, proud and at ease” — well, now you’re taking it to another level. You’ve conveyed an experience of contribution and impact.
Communicating how another person’s actions make you feel gets you in the game. You take a risk by revealing your feelings, and it makes you more open, which can allow trust and authenticity to flourish.
It's Not All Puppies and Ponies
Contrary to what you might think, appreciation isn’t all about the good. It can also be applied as a generative act when things are difficult or when the person makes no sense to you.
Entering another’s world to seek understanding is an act of appreciation. Can you appreciate their political views, what they eat or don't, their bad habits, their strong opinions, their cultural background and values that are nothing like yours? Can you stand up close and love what is right in front of you and find something to say that communicates: You belong here.
Here’s what that might sound like: “I appreciate that you have such a different world experience than me. It makes me uncomfortable, and I can see there is a lot more for me to learn about this.”
Make it a Habit
Taking a few minutes to communicate to your team members specifically what you appreciate about their contributions can have far-reaching impact. Try to build it into your weekly habit, perhaps by spending the last hour of your week writing a personal thank-you note or just jotting down what you appreciated about people from the week. You could consider starting your team meetings with brief acknowledgements of team members.
Build in a habit of focusing on and finding the good. Then express your appreciation in a way that feels authentic to you. You’ll quickly discover that finding and communicating the good is good for everyone