The #1 Way to Motivate Employees - and it's Free

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Categories: Employee Engagement

Remember when you were a kid, and you got a shiny gold star sticker for just about every accomplishment you could think of? Finishing your homework, gold star. Showing up on time, gold star. Washing your hands?? Yep, gold star.

Now, if I had a gold star for every time I washed my hands at this age, I might need to start buying folders in bulk to slap on some more shiny gold stickers.

Why was this effective in getting kids to do their work? Kids, adults – everyone – love getting recognized and appreciated for their work. The need to feel appreciated doesn’t go away just because we’re not 8-year olds anymore. This need carries over to our adult years. When you’re not appreciated, you’re not motivated.

Appreciation has proven to be a powerful motivational tool, and even serve as important factors in overall good health and relationships. That’s why, when you’re trying to motivate your employees, the very first place to start is with appreciation.


The Science of Appreciation


Over the last few decades, researchers have consistently found that showing appreciation - that is, truly being thankful for what you have - is closely tied to several key health indicators. For example, a Chinese study found that practicing gratitude and appreciation helped improve sleep, which in turn had a positive effect on symptoms related to depression and anxiety. Another study determined that being appreciative not only increases optimism, but also helps influence behaviors, most notably, increasing physical activity and thereby reducing pain and illness.

A National Institutes of Health study supported these findings. In short, appreciation stimulates the hypothalamus region of the brain, which controls major bodily functions including eating, drinking, and sleeping, as well as metabolism and stress responses. This stimulus has a positive effect on these functions, which explains why gratitude can improve overall health.

However, appreciation also stimulates the parts of the brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, one of the so-called "happy" chemicals. When you experience a dopamine "rush," it feels good, and you’re likely to want to do it again, something that scientists call a virtuous cycle. Therefore, when you express or receive gratitude, it can create the natural response of wanting to continue that behavior.

Even more interesting is the idea that people who express gratitude are often more willing to spread their feelings of positivity to others. This prosocial behavior creates a general feeling of goodwill, unity, and teamwork among groups. Combined with the virtuous cycle that being appreciated can create, and it’s easy to see why showing appreciation to your employees is one of the simplest, yet most effective, means of motivating them.

Need more proof? One survey found that 80 percent of employees are motivated to work harder when their bosses show appreciation - as opposed to only 40 percent of employees who work harder out of fear, either of their boss or of losing their jobs.


How to Show Appreciation


Showing appreciation can be as simple as saying "thank you" to your employees. However, true gratitude and appreciation goes well beyond simply being polite. For the most benefits, appreciation needs to be sincere, specific, and offered in such a way that the recipient doesn’t feel compelled to offer anything in return. In other words, instead of a rushed "Thanks," for someone who went above and beyond to reach a deadline, a more sincere, "Mary, thank you for staying late yesterday to assemble the orientation packets. We couldn’t have done it without you," will create more positive emotions.

There are times, though, when more than a thank you is warranted. Again, you want to show appreciation on an ongoing basis, so consider implementing some of the following practices:

  • Publicly recognize your peers and show appreciation on your office TVs.
  • Offer tokens of appreciation. Surprise your team with unexpected employee appreciation gifts, a catered lunch, or coffee and snacks just to say thank you for their work.
  • Include recognition in an employee newsletter.
  • Reward excellence with a greater role in decision-making, or greater responsibilities.
  • Offer additional benefits, such as extra time off, the option to telecommute, or perks like employee parties or outings.

Motivating your employees with appreciation doesn’t have to cost a lot, or anything at all. When you take the time to appreciate your employees, not only will you have a happier and more productive team, but you’ll also foster more loyalty and reduce turnover while creating a pleasant working environment.