Many managers reported that communicating appreciation seemed really complicated. Some had trouble balancing it with developmental feedback and feared sending mixed messages to employees. Some were concerned that their efforts to offer appreciation to all employees would be routinized and seen as impersonal and meaningless.
— Kerry Roberts Gibson, Kate O’Leary, and Joseph R. Weintraub
As a manager, do you find that you neglect to recognize individual and team achievements because of the fears reported above? The quote is from a recent Harvard Business Review article summarizing the authors’ research into the dynamics of recognition and appreciation between managers and their reports. Their findings reveal that, too often, managers consider gestures of recognition unnecessary or perfunctory, while employees receive them differently.
One useful concept from their study is the “illusion of transparency.” Managers often believe they’re communicating more than they actually are, simply by going about their business, following through on team action items, and sharing as much as organizational goals demand. This is a universal problem: We often assume others can read our thoughts and emotions simply because we’re living in those thoughts and emotions. What seems so obvious and palpable to us, however, is often not apparent to others without direct communication.
Among our suite of services at TGC, we offer exit interviews to organizations in order to gauge employee experiences. In all the feedback I’ve received from departing workers, I have never come across a complaint that a manager hindered work productivity by engaging with reports individually and respectfully on a daily basis. Habitual cordiality, frankness, and receptiveness were always cited as benefits and morale builders.
The executives heading one of my client organizations—with branches across the U.S.—even make a point of personally calling employees on their birthdays to wish them well, regardless of their location in the company’s hierarchy. Again and again, exit interviewees cite this annual recognition as evidence that management genuinely values each worker as an individual with a unique back story, as well as a critical human component of the organization’s mission.
This is why greeting coworkers when you first walk into the office—the simplest of gestures—is so crucial, even if many managers worry it might appear trivial, or “routinized,” as the authors put it. Genuine connection sets the tone for the day, like turning on the power for open communication, ideally to be followed by unambiguous interactions that dispel confusion, build rapport, and increase engagement.
Outside of the workplace, this subject reminds me of what I’ve heard and experienced about French attitudes toward American tourists. Americans sometimes lament that Parisians in particular are rude to them—the unfortunate but familiar stereotype of French snootiness. What many Americans don’t realize is that the French often regard them as equally rude, if for a slightly different reason: Tourists often do not greet servers or shopkeepers before making a request. An introductory “bonjour,” in this case, would go a long way toward bridging the gap, culturally speaking! Perhaps what Americans perceive as rudeness is simply the offense taken by Parisians when they’re not recognized as individuals by way of a polite salutation. American tourists may even think they’re just mercifully getting to the point in order to spare the worker unnecessary conversation with a traveler who very often is not fluent in French. Each side is usually motivated by a desire to be respectful, but without the proper conversational entry point, it’s difficult to acknowledge and trust mutual good intentions.
By emphasizing a friendly greeting, I don’t intend to trivialize the complexity of work relationships or the manager’s multifaceted role as a motivator and organizer. As the authors describe in the article cited above, there are many issues at stake in respectful, genuinely transparent workplace interactions—including following company procedure, touching base on tasks frequently and often, avoiding generalizations, emphasizing growth opportunities and developmental feedback, and much, much more. But in that complexity and its vulnerability to misunderstandings, we should never forget that a simple hello and an inquiry into a team member’s well-being go a long way toward fostering a positive work culture and building clarity and engagement.