Feedback: Why Is Expressing Appreciation Hard?

Why is it that praising or expressing appreciation to people at work can be so awkward? Sometimes it can feel contrived, even disingenuous. Maybe we’re just not as good at expressing positive thoughts as we are negativity. Are we so entrenched in sarcasm and dark humor that the expression of authentic appreciation seems odd?

Tony Schwartz asks this question over on a Harvard Business Blog in a post called, Why Appreciation Matters So Much. There’s plenty of research that touts the benefits of a positive attitude at work:

  1. The single highest driver of engagement, according to a worldwide study conducted by Towers Watson, is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their well being. Less than 40 percent of workers felt so engaged.
  2. In one well-known study, workers who felt unfairly criticized by a boss or felt they had a boss who didn’t listen to their concerns had a 30 percent higher rate of coronary disease than those who felt treated fairly and with care.
  3. In the workplace itself, researcher Marcial Losada has found that among high-performing teams, the expression of positive feedback outweighs that of negative feedback by a ratio of 5.6 to 1. By contrast, low-performing teams have a ratio of .36 to 1.

Nobody disagrees that appreciation and positivity creates better work conditions, performance, motivation and creativity. But to quote from our Gen Y, when it comes to giving frequent positive feedback to each other, “We suck!”

We could blame it on our brains, which are predisposed to hunt for threats in the environment. We are predisposed to a negativity bias. Our trigger-happy emotional centers don’t care if they pick up on a threat from a tiger or from the boss.

The impact of negative emotions — and more specifically the feeling of being devalued — is incredibly toxic. As Daniel Goleman has written, “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are almost as powerful as those to our very survival.”

We know that positive feedback creates a snowball effect. When a sports coach focuses more on what an athlete is doing right instead of what’s lacking, he boosts performance.

But knowing this to be true doesn’t change our natural habits. And blaming the brain doesn’t work — there is also a positivity offset that helps us see things in a positive light, especially when it comes to ourselves. No, the challenge is truly in the domain of expression of appreciation:

How can you verbalize appreciation to your fellow humans in a way that is real? I challenge you to simply state the obviously positive. Go ahead and say it, even if you might think it sounds lame, or feels uncomfortable. Tell your colleague, team member, boss, or whoever how much you appreciate what they did or said. I dare you.

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