46% of employees in the software industry suffer from burnout because of a toxic work environment. And almost half of the employees (47%) believe their companies will remain toxic in the future, according to TalentLMS and CultureAmp’s research report.
Toxic workplaces have a serious impact on employees. It’s not that they don’t like their jobs, but continuous toxic behaviors leave people unmotivated, disengaged, unwilling to perform their best, and very stressed.
However, toxicity at work can and should be eliminated in modern workplaces. In fact, 43% of employees think managerial and leadership training for leaders and managers would be helpful. Also, employees support that recognition and rewards programs are essential to create a balanced work culture.
Based on these findings, we discussed with Dr. Paul White, keynote speaker, leadership trainer, psychologist, researcher, and president of Appreciation at Work, who assists companies in improving workplace cultures, how appreciation can help foster a more positive work culture and eliminate toxicity in the workplace.
What appreciation at work really is
Recognition and rewards programs are extremely valuable to employees when it comes to a balanced work culture. Appreciation is a way of showing employees that you recognize their contributions and reward them for their personal input in the organization.
However, we shouldn’t confuse recognition with appreciation.
Appreciation focuses on how an employee adds personal value to an organization (e.g., having a collaborative spirit), whereas recognition focuses on how people add value to the organization with their actions (e.g., performance).
By all means, both are equally important to eliminate toxicity at work and create a positive work culture.
According to Dr. White, there’s a misconception around appreciation–that its goal is just to help people feel good or happy. Even if this is a nice place to start, the primary goal of appreciation is to help create an effective and functional organization.
He shares a great example to illustrate the importance of appreciation in the workplace. “I use the image of oil in a machine–if you have a machine that has parts that work together with no oil, there’s friction, there’s sparks, it gets stuck and it doesn’t work well. The oil helps it flow. And I think appreciation is like that in the workplace. It helps the organization work well.”
Looking at the behaviors of valued vs. non-valued employees
Employees think that leadership and management are not aware of toxicity at work. But here are some signs that show the lack of positive reinforcement in the workplace.
Some common, negative behaviors that non-valued employees demonstrate, according to Dr. White, are:
- People show up late for work
- They come back late from lunch breaks
- They call in sick more often, or even if they’re not really sick
- Conflicts are prevalent between team members
- There is a lack of cooperation (including across departments)
- More work-related accidents take place (and people who don’t feel valued feel hesitant to report hazards)
On the other hand, when people feel valued:
- Productivity and profitability boost
- Employee turnover decreases
- Managers enjoy their work and can focus on other tasks instead of dealing with conflicts
“When people don’t feel valued, they’re more irritable,” Dr. White adds. “They’re easily offended by little things that really don’t matter much, for example, where their parking spot is, whether they have a window next to their workspace, the size of their monitor, or scheduling issues. But when people feel appreciated, those things sort of fall away, because they know that they’re valued and the small issue becomes less important.”
Putting appreciation into practice: Fostering a positive work environment
Toxic workplaces spark negativity. And negativity brings even more toxicity. By fostering a positive work environment, leadership can stop this vicious cycle. Let’s see how this can happen in practice with some useful tips leadership and senior management can follow:
By communicating authentic appreciation to people, you enhance feelings of positivity which, in turn, douse the negativity that occurs in the workplace.
Dr. White discusses that it’s important to follow some core principles when it comes to communicating appreciation so that a person feels truly valued. These are:
- Regular communication of appreciation (in different settings and relationships)
- Communication in ways that are important to the recipient (not the sender)
- Appreciation that is personal and direct
- Appreciation that is perceived as authentic
Don’t just focus on performance
Having recognition plans in hand is one way of showing employees you value their contributions to the organization. But recognition programs only focus on performance and top talent.
Meaning 50-60% of a workforce might be really good people, working hard, or maybe they’re at the beginning of their career; “They’re not just stars, yet. And if they don’t reach rewards, they don’t hear anything.” Dr. White comments.
Appreciation goes a long way toward engagement and loyalty. Employees don’t only leave because they need higher compensation (as leadership believes). 79% of people leave work because they don’t receive appreciation. And not being valued is a strong sign of workplace toxicity.
According to Dr. White, authentic appreciation is based on trust. It’s all about meaning what you say and saying what you mean.
How can there be authentic and honest appreciation if people share their thoughts and leadership perceives them differently? Or how can appreciation be true when it looks like convincing people they’re valued, when you really don’t? It’s even in the smallest things…
“People see what you say. And what you do. When you say, “I’ll get back to you by the end of the day,” you should do so and get back to them. By the end of the day, they’re more likely to believe and trust you. And so, based on trust, you communicate authentic appreciation. Thus, it’s more possible to build and rebuild on this base.” Dr. White suggests.
Train employees (and leadership)
People may not have innate skills to show appreciation. But as other soft skills, like empathy, empowerment, and conflict resolution, appreciation can be taught. And it’s important to train both leadership and employees.
Leadership and senior management should set the right example and practice appreciation in the workplace. Traditionally, leaders were taught that they need to be strict and distant, otherwise they look weak. On the contrary, showing appreciation is a sign of strength that helps build a stronger and more resilient workplace.
“We teach the upper-level leadership and address the misconceptions that they have.” Dr. White comments.
“For an appreciation culture to develop, it’s not just from the supervisors or managers or executives. It’s not a top-down kind of thing. Appreciation is not solely for leaders and managers to communicate that it’s effective. It’s really for colleagues and peers and even across departments,” Dr. White says.
All employees, no matter their position, department, or expertise, should receive training on appreciation. In that way, appreciation is encouraged among all people, between all teams and departments, but also between leadership and employees.
Employees should learn how to show authentic appreciation to their team members, to other department members, and towards leadership, too. Appreciation can’t be efficient if done partly. It’s about building a whole positive culture among all people in an organization.
How to approach appreciation training
Organizations should create a training program on what appreciation is, how it can benefit the business, tips on applying it, the core values, etc.
And for training to be effective, it should be delivered in a meaningful way.
For example, offer training material in various formats on your LMS so that training is effective for all learning styles. Or, select a platform with integrated videoconferencing tools to easily schedule 1:1 or group sessions with appreciation experts. Also, opt for discussion boards to boost knowledge sharing during training.
Ask for feedback
Run surveys among people to measure the effectiveness of appreciation programs.
Leadership should take the time to listen to what employees have to say in 1:1 meetings or small groups, or run surveys and assessments to discover problem areas. Asking for feedback is necessary for pinpointing toxic areas in the workplace that need to be addressed.
Languages of appreciation vs. love languages
Not everyone has a clear understanding of what appreciation is, or how to show authentic appreciation. Different individuals understand appreciation in different ways, based on the language of appreciation they speak.
Dr. White likens the languages of appreciation to the five love languages. These are (followed by his examples):
- Words of affirmation: Affirming the value of the person by being specific. For example, saying the name of the person and telling what’s important; “Jenna, thank you for getting your reports done and on time to me, because that helps me turn my reports around to my supervisor on time and reduce my stress.”
- Quality time: Employees really value quality time away from work, so allowing for quality time is another way of showing appreciation. “In the past, it was individual time with your supervisor or manager, being able to share thoughts and observations, or get input. For modern employees, it’s more about time with colleagues or being able to go to lunch with your friends or go out after work, maybe get together and go to a sporting event over the weekend.”
- Acts of service: Do something to help employees with their day. “An act of service for a nurse in a hospital might be to cover their patient calls so they can catch up on paperwork.”
- Tangible gifts: Not bonuses, but something small employees personally value. “It could be bringing in their favorite kind of coffee or tea, or bringing in a snack that they particularly enjoy.”
- Physical touch (wherever applicable): Depending on the cultural differences, touching creates bonding and appreciation. “A high five when you finish a project or a fist bump; when you fix a problem, maybe a congratulatory handshake.”
Of course, these languages of appreciation differ from individual to individual, and from region to region. For example, in the UK, physical touch is not common and people might get in trouble even for a handshake. However, the majority of Latin or Hispanic employees are more likely to touch, shake hands, or even hug to celebrate, according to Dr. White’s observations and experience.
Leaders should remember that not everyone speaks the same appreciation language. And this is why assessments and feedback are absolutely necessary before putting an appreciation strategy into practice.
Simplicity is key to a successful appreciation strategy
Appreciation works in simple ways–people should be willing to spend time to connect on a personal level with their colleagues or subordinates; “People need to stay connected with their colleagues, at a personal level, not only with their supervisor or just communicating about work” according to Dr. Paul White.
Showing appreciation shouldn’t be complex. But it’s essential that all people in an organization are aligned with the core concepts and the different appreciation languages, and show commitment to putting theory into practice.
Dr. White recommends, “Learning and trying new behaviors takes energy – so, the simpler it is, the more likely people will try it.”