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Gratitude schmatitude: How too much praise devalues appreciation

At what point do all the emoji-laden shout-outs begin to deafen us to meaningful praise?

Gratitude schmatitude: How too much praise devalues appreciation
[Emojis: EmojiOne]

It’s become a regular occurrence at our office. At least a couple times a week, one of our Slack threads erupts in a celebratory shout-out. It could be a manager congratulating their team for hitting its sales targets or an individual recognizing a senior employee for taking the time to teach them a new skill. Within seconds these posts get augmented with applause emojis, likes, and GIFs–a show of thanks from throughout the company.

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The benefits of expressing gratitude in our personal lives–everything from healthier bodies to better sleep habits–have been well-documented. Studies also show expressing gratitude at work improves culture and boosts productivity. And with everyone from Arianna Huffington to Oprah touting gratitude journals as their keys to success, gratitude is definitely having a moment.

But getting the balance right can be tough in a business setting. Sure, it’s easier than ever through online platforms like Slack to send a quick shout-out to your teams (which, by the way, I think is an excellent way to show support). But there can be serious consequences to misusing, or overusing, displays of appreciation in the office.

I certainly don’t have the rules of gratitude all figured out. But since it’s the season to reflect on what makes us thankful, here are some things I’ve learned along the way about the challenges of showing the right amount of gratitude–in the right way–at work.

Gratitude is a tool–use it wisely

Human beings need to feel a sense of purpose, and this is especially important at work. Ultimately, gratitude is a way of reinforcing that your team’s contributions to your organization have a purpose beyond simply earning them a paycheck.

But there’s a danger in overdoing it. Too much “drive-by praise” in the form of quick texts and emails–or even just popping into someone’s office for a quick thanks on your way home–can make messages of appreciation lose their meaning. They start to come off like cheap motivational techniques. On the flip side, they also run the risk of conditioning teams to expect constant positive reinforcement for meeting the basic requirements of their jobs.

One manager who recently joined our team even broke from our company tradition of having employees ring a bell when they close a sale. His rationale? Closing sales is the job, not an extraordinary effort worthy of a special celebration. That said, he still takes time to ensure his team feels appreciated–taking them out for dinner to recognize achievements such as meeting quarterly targets or landing a big client. But reserving big displays of appreciation for big efforts–not day-to-day duties–helps gratitude retain its power.

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The delivery method matters

Time and place matter when it comes to showing gratitude. Slack or email are great tools for acknowledging smaller wins as they provide instant feedback as well as a record of appreciation managers can consult when it’s time for performance reviews.

For big accomplishments, however, the most meaningful thanks still come in-person, and can have added power with public recognition. We do this once a month at our companywide standup meetings, where I take time to credit teams or individuals whose outstanding efforts have made our company stronger.

The hitch here is that I really have to do my homework to ensure this is an effective way to communicate gratitude. Specificity is key. As CEO, I’m not always aware of the exceptional effort happening at every level of the organization, so I rely on my managers to be my eyes and ears. We have regular meetings where we discuss what’s happening at all levels of the org, as well as agreed-upon criteria for what exactly counts as going the extra mile.

Money doesn’t (always) buy thanks

Of course, as a founder, I may think the personal touch is the best way of showing gratitude. But that doesn’t mean a big chunk of my team wouldn’t prefer something more tangible. Still, showing thanks with bonuses gets tricky. For starters, it sets a dangerous precedent–expectations of raises at irregular times between reviews and an uneven compensation landscape. To be clear, regularly scheduled performance reviews and annual raises are very much a part of the business, but research actually shows that short-term or one-off financial bumps may not actually improve performance.

What we do offer, however, are off-cadence options–essentially, shares in the business–that are reserved for truly exceptional cases. To me, this makes sense because it draws a direct connection between an employee’s contribution and the continued success of the company: You’ve had a real impact on our value and deserve to share in it. Sustain those efforts and you’ll reap even greater rewards down the road.

A similar issue with showing gratitude arises in the event of celebrations, like holiday parties. The reality is that these become perfunctory. We still do them, but I try to make the messages of thanks within them much more meaningful, say by delivering a short poem or speech to my team. It sounds trite, but sincerity matters at times like these–maybe even more than an open bar or fancy hors d’oeuvres.

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In the end, showing gratitude makes us all happier. But for all the benefits it brings, gratitude can be a remarkably complex emotion to convey appropriately at work. At its core, gratitude is deeply instinctive. We can tell when it’s truly deserved and when it’s genuinely expressed.

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About the author

Michael Litt is cofounder and CEO of the video marketing platform Vidyard. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellitt.

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