When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Mark Scharenbroich, an award-winning motivational speaker, author, and filmmaker. It was a powerful experience at the time, and many years later, when I was struggling with depression and negativity, I looked him up, read his book, and was reminded of the important messages that had so inspired me as a high school student. I still clearly remember many things from his talk, but the one that’s been on my mind for the past few days was when he discussed feeling celebrated and appreciated. At one point, he proposed the idea that everyone in the world should, at any time, be able to call out a request for a standing ovation…and then receive one. It was a radical idea that probably wouldn’t work in the real world (although my fellow attendees actually did that for several weeks afterwards), but the concept really struck me, and still does.
Showing appreciation is one of my personal values, and something I do frequently, but a few days ago I found myself on the other side of the equation. For a few weeks I had been dealing with a nagging sense of discontent, and I’ve finally realized that I was feeling unappreciated. I wanted a standing ovation-not literally, but metaphorically-and I didn’t even know it until it happened. When it did, I was reminded of how something so small can change so much.
There’s a reason we teach kids to stay “thank you”. Feeling unappreciated has been linked to frustration, anxiety, resentment, depression, and a lack of motivation. I once had a supervisor who, during a tense meeting, announced, “I’m not going to kiss your a** just for doing your jobs”. I’m not sure he could have found a better way to poison our team if he’d set out to do so. Obviously, announcing that you don’t intend to show appreciation is an extreme example, but just passively ignoring people’s need to be acknowledged can, over time, be just as damaging. On the flip side, study after study has shown that regularly expressing appreciation leads to healthier relationships, stronger marriages, and improved corporate cultures.
Appreciation is Contagious
One of my professors in graduate school, where I studied Organizational Leadership, liked to say, “There are three keys to a successful organization: Culture, culture, and culture”. He preached the importance of modeling behaviors and values, and presented us with overwhelming evidence of how both positive and negative attitudes can sweep through and transform a group of people. I’ve seen evidence of this in both my professional and personal lives. Here’s an example: one morning someone puts a sticky note on the wall of the coffee room, thanking and praising a coworker. By lunchtime, there are three more. By the end of the day, there are a dozen. By the end of the week, people are hunting for space that isn’t already covered. Or how about this one? At a holiday gathering, family members are stressed and sniping at each other while trying to finish dinner preparations. By the time the food is on the table, they’re all at a slow burn. When Dad takes the time to honestly and genuinely thank them for their efforts, the tension dissipates as they all stop concentrating on their own contributions and consider how everyone made this time with family possible.
Appreciation Benefits the Giver and the Receiver
This article lays out the neuroscience of gratitude, and reminds us that whether we’re giving or receiving heartfelt thanks or a token of appreciation, our brain gets a dopamine boost. In other words, it feels good, and those good feelings lead to a desire to keep the cycle going in a positive direction. It helps to create a better environment, positive feelings, and increased wellness. It improves interpersonal relationships, productivity, and connection. This isn’t just true in the workplace, but among any group of people.
What was causing me to feel frustrated and unhappy over the past few weeks? I’d been working overtime not just on my own projects, but because another department asked for help finishing a last minute training module, and someone in my department was struggling with a difficult temporary responsibility (doing something I used to do while the person who is currently responsible for it is out on medical leave). I’m not complaining about helping (I like to help), but it was stressful. More significantly, in the midst of all this there were a lot of negative messages coming from the higher ups, focusing on what people were doing wrong and the increasing workload we could all expect. Finally, the training module I’d worked so hard on was unsuccessful because of technical issues that were unanticipated and out of my control, leading to a lot of complaints and angry emails. I went home that day absolutely seething at the fact that after hours of work on something that wasn’t my job, I was rewarded with a barrage of negativity about something that wasn’t my fault.
So what turned my attitude around? A week’s worth of bottled frappuccinos and several bags of M&Ms. Just when I needed it most, two people I’d helped stopped by with small tokens of gratitude. Both of them had asked around to find out some of my favorite things, bought them, and gave them to me to express their appreciation. I immediately felt less stressed and more energized, and had a more positive attitude that lasted for the rest of the week. These small “standing ovations” made all the difference.
How can you give someone a “standing ovation” this week? Who do you plan to appreciate?