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You are never too full for appreciation

For many years, recognition has been considered a key component of employee morale and motivation. Managers were trained to recognize their staff's achievements and milestones. Employee recognition programs were put in place to facilitate it. And, employee surveys asked about it and reported on it.

Here is the rub: it isn't working.

For a decade now we've known about 'The Recognition Gap'. While 90% of North American organizations have an employee recognition program, Gallup reports that two-thirds of workers feel they receive no recognition. Why is that?

Four reasons for this are:

  1. recognition lacks emotion
  2. recognition programs don't go deeply enough
  3. recognition is impersonal
  4.  recognition is often one-way

Before considering each reason and what to do about it, let's clarify what is meant by recognition versus appreciation.

Recognition is by definition an acknowledgement of something's existence or validity. For example, "I recognize you've had 100% attendance with no sick days. Thanks!" or "I recognize you've put in extra hours and worked tirelessly for Project X. Here is a spa certificate!" In the corporate world, it is what is given - money, time off, or an acknowledgment - for something of value. In other words, it is an exchange.

Let's contrast this with appreciation. Appreciation means to deeply understand a situation. It is a feeling of gratitude for something of importance. To appreciate someone is to show them how you are feeling, and how it has affected you personally. It isn't an exchange, it is a gift.

How might we use this to refine our thinking from recognition to appreciation?

1. From Dispassionate to Personal takes it from Fleeting to Enduring

The point of appreciation is to reaffirm someone's value and importance. To do this well, we must go deeper - how did someone's actions make us feel? How did it impact our life or the lives of others? What was meaningful? Meaning, especially when there is a personal element, endures.

I remember years ago a junior staff person, Jonathan, produced and delivered an inaccurate report to the CEO. The CEO caught the error and told the CFO, who told the Controller, who told the Director of Finance, who told Jonathan to fix it and deliver a revised report. I was there when Jonathan handed the revised report to the CEO and heard Jonathan say, "Good catch dude!" That's recognition. Well, we all had really good laugh over that one. Imagine though, if he'd used the opportunity to also say, "No wonder you are CEO. This was a good learning for me: I'll never forget to double check the data again." That's appreciation.

2. From a Recognition Program to a Climate of Appreciation

Managers have been trained to make specific comments on observed behaviour. For example, "Your report was on time and very well written." A considerate manager might add, "The report was so well written, I didn't have any edits before sending it along to my boss and the senior management team."

As well as notable outcomes, let's also pay attention to the effort people put in and foster a general climate of appreciation. People need about 4X as much positive reinforcement as negative critique just to feel a balanced assessment. Appreciation has to be a daily practice. We crave it. We can't get enough. We certainly can't get too much.

"You are never too full for appreciation."

3. From Generic to Customized

"I recognize that you appreciate me but I don't appreciate how you recognized me."

About 60% of employee recognition is company merchandise and gift certificates. These tokens of appreciation are nice but don't replace the feeling of making a difference in someone's life. Good recognition has to follow the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

4. From Hierarchical to Generative Partner

Although recognition has been solely the boss's responsibility in the past, appreciation is everyone's business: we need to show all of our workplace partners proper appreciation, especially our boss.

Bosses experience their own recognition gap: research shows there is a huge gulf between when managers feel they are going above and beyond for their team, and how their team see it. Bosses rarely get appreciation from their own staff. How disheartening!

"We need to remember to appreciate ALL our workplace partners."


Recognition is like a good meal: a lovely treat that is forgotten as soon as our belly is empty again. There is nothing wrong with recognition, it just doesn't satisfy our deepest needs nor strengthen our workplace relationships in the ways that appreciation can. Appreciation, especially when we make a habit of it, can change everything.