Ever wonder where the creative energy goes in organizations that are staffed by bright and competent people? What happens that causes partnerships, started in hope to sour? How does it happen that marriages started in goodwill and love devolve into couples who feel trapped in loveless relationships? In this article we’ll explore one of the dynamics that drains these relationships of their good energy, and we’ll offer a simple antidote that can revitalize the constructive bonds that generate goodwill and which cause people to pull together toward common goals. That antidote lies in creating a culture of appreciation in your workplace or in your home.
Setting the stage:
Let’s start with the personal and then move on to the professional. After a career of working with people in all aspects of life, my experience tells me that people don’t fall in love. Oh, some fall quickly into lust, but they don’t fall into love. People work their tails off to make love happen. They meet someone to whom they feel attracted and something happens. They feel an energy and enthusiasm. They seek out the other person. They talk to each other. They listen to each other. They open their minds to the interests and insights of this other person. They attribute these new, good feelings to this connection with the other person. They work to be attractive, to present their best selves. And, lo and behold, love grows. A self-sustaining cycle is initiated. They share a mutual appreciation and they fantasize about how good their lives can be if this other person is in it. It all is nurturing, bonding, and loving. This appreciation looks for the good, assumes the best, and faces the joint future with optimism.
At some point, they seal the deal. Commitments are made to each other and to the relationship. Once this happens, a person’s thinking gradually shifts. People begin to take the gifts and graces of their partner for granted. Ongoing contact makes them aware of what the other doesn’t do so well. We see their flaws and shortcoming. People gradually lower the amounts of appreciation they share and begin to dwell on their disappointments and frustrations. They notice what’s wrong, what’s missing and dissatisfactions grow. They find that they are not magically transformed and day-to-day life with its concomitant stresses reemerges. The more that they dwell on their frustrations, the more disenchanted they become. Love fades. In three, or five, or seven years love is often gone, replaced by dislike and a lack of caring. How many couples do you know who don’t even seem to like each other anymore? Hopes are replaced by cynicism, love with anger, and good-will with animosity or indifference. Appreciation may not totally disappear, but as the balance shifts more toward fault-finding the damage is proportional.
This can happen in marriage, and to a less dramatic (but often as intensely) in business partnerships and even within businesses and social organizations. This focus on what’s wrong is a caustic, corrosive process and it kills the spirit. Dwelling primarily on your frustrations or disappointments, drains relationships of their positive energy. It stifles creativity and turns our imaginations into negative wonderings. We “court” potential partners with the same types of dynamics. Our hiring processes are similar to dating, at least until the relationship is sealed. We start off hopeful and welcoming and eventually find those feeling replaced by complacency or frustration. It’s a pretty human phenomenon, but one which is not inevitable.
Building a Culture of Appreciation:
We can strengthen our connections, our commitments, and even our enthusiasm by working to nurture our feelings of appreciation and diligently communicating them, both individually and in public. It is my belief that, all things being equal, people would like to be a valued member of their communities; a vital and sought after member of their teams and groups. Being important to the mission, making valued contributions to the goals, and providing relevant support to those in relation to you, make a person sought out and sought after. Status comes to those people; they are often energized by the high regard of others. By the same token, not being seen as reliable, being seen as inadequate to the expectations held for you, and being perceived as using the resources of others to meet your needs before the group’s makes you less desirable; lowers your status.
Now think of what happens when we are forming partnerships, courting, or hiring a new person into the organization. We start off with high hopes; we envision the value that the new person will add. The longer the relationship lasts the more of those things that we take for granted. “That’s what we pay you for!” We gradually become aware of how this new person falls short of what we imagined. We tend to focus on areas of misunderstanding or mistakes. We often limit how the other person should contribute based on how we define their role, often without considering what else they might contribute and how that could nurture their enthusiasm. We have our own set ways of doing things that we don’t want to change just because someone new is in the mix. Oftentimes, we continue to make our plans and pursue our goals without their input. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does a message is sent that, “I don’t value what you think you could offer.” When the message is that I don’t want your ideas the other person usually begins to shut down. They don’t offer ideas; indeed, they often don’t bother to think beyond their prescribed duties. Enthusiasm wanes as they emotionally disengage from shared work or shared goals.
Legitimate problem solving and relationship tending:
I need to turn here to acknowledge that there is something between appreciation and fault finding on this continuum. There is room for addressing and remedying problems or misconceptions. Not all offered ideas are right or productive. Not all behaviors are seen as good or productive. However, in such a building process people talk with each other for the purpose of making things better or relieving frustrations. Hopefully, people are listening to each other. Inherent in this process is mutual respect and the message, at least implicitly, that you value the contribution that the other person can make. You are both invested in improving the relationship and that fosters positive regard. It keeps the other person engaged and motivated. There is an inherent appreciation for the other person as a partner or contributor. So any culture of appreciation should contain a way to address issues constructively. You simply have to look at problems and frustrations as opportunities to improve that relationship rather than simply sitting back and slowly building resentment.
- We should start by saying what isn’t included. A culture of appreciation isn’t about simply being polite or voicing trivial compliments. If the best message you can say is that, “You really do a good job of not drooling on yourself when working at your desk,” or “Your hair is really pretty today” it implies that there isn’t anything more substantial that you appreciate. Compliments are nice but that is different than acknowledging the differences made by the fact that this particular person is in this relationship with you.
- Acknowledging and appreciating good faith efforts made by another keeps them motivated to keep making such efforts. Ignoring them usually serves to extinguish those behaviors over time.
- Asking for another person’s input or observations keeps the other person critically engaged in watching relevant processes and looking for ways to make improvements.
- Saying “thank you” is not only nice, it is a gesture of appreciation that strengthens bonds between people.
- Involving other people in your planning, particularly in efforts which will involve or impact them, tells people that you value their thinking. If in the process you see some way in which their thinking can be improved this becomes a “teachable moment” and fosters collaboration in the long run.
- Recognizing the value that another person’s thinking or doing has added to the quality of the outcome is another way to sustain a culture of collaboration. To appreciate how their input might have prevented a mistake or a misstep, or how what they have done has made things go better builds their investment in your success.
- Praising the personal qualities and character traits of another for their benefit to your efforts builds bonds and fosters self-esteem.
- Acknowledging progress feeds the desire to continue to grow and improve. Every D student that gets a C should be recognized. If you wait for an A before you praise it may never come.
While this list is not exhaustive it gives you the essence of a culture of appreciation. With the intention to acknowledge and appreciate these things you are building your focus on seeing them. You’ve shifted the balance from finding fault to appreciating. It costs you nothing, but it can foster huge returns. It is bonding. It nurtures the best in others and in us. It strengthens relationships. Not doing so, on the other hand is caustic and corrosive.
People are more likely to work to satisfy you if they feel that what they do can make a difference. They stay engaged where they are valued and appreciated. We often work quite hard to build relationships and then we move on to other concerns. Paying attention and acknowledging the worth of another builds love and trust. The natural inclination, however, is to gradually gravitate to focusing upon what’s missing, what’s wrong, or what could be better. When we start to dwell on these things we begin to drain the relationship of energy and vitality. We don’t have to go there. By committing to living and working in a culture of appreciation we build rather than destroy good will. The people whom we count on are more likely to realize more of their potential. Establishing a culture of appreciation costs us nothing. It is capable of producing outstanding returns. All it takes is the will to do so and the energy to notice what’s good.