This post was first published in Harvard Business Review.
In the movie Remember the Titans, Coach Herman Boone takes his high school football team to the battleground of Gettysburg. Having inherited a fractured and divided squad, Coach Boone implores the players to “take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together, right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were.” Coach Boone then establishes the primacy of an important team virtue: “I don’t care if you like each other right now, but you will respect each other.”
In every workplace and on every team, all people have the innate desire to feel appreciated and valued by others. Like Coach Boone, leaders of teams — and team members themselves — should work to foster a culture of value and appreciation.
High performing teams have well-defined goals, systems of accountability, clear roles and responsibilities, and open communication. Just as importantly, teams that foster cohesion with a sense of appreciation and gratitude among the team members maximize performance on a number of dimensions. Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, authors of the Wisdom of Teams, define a high-performing team in part by members’ strong personal commitment to the growth and success of each team member and of the team as a whole.
Research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors, are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals. Google, which sits atop many best-places-to-work lists, fosters feelings of employee value through an open culture that promotes employee input, routinely rewards and recognizes performance, and encourages personal growth. In a recent interview, CEO Larry Page stated, “My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.”
And consider the consequences of not fostering a culture of gratitude: A study of over 1,700 employees conducted in 2012 by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that more than half of all employees intended to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.
Several recent articles point out the importance of saying “thank you” and giving specific praise to employees when earned in genuine, honest, and heartfelt ways. Mark Gaston’s blog on How to Give a Meaningful Thank-you is full of great advice such as sharing with employees how their contributions had personal significance for the leader and team.
In addition to these very important gestures of thanks, recent research suggests that a leader can enhance a culture of gratitude in the following ways.
- Help others develop. Interestingly, the APA study indicated that 70% of employees feel valued at work when they have opportunities for growth and development. While promotion opportunities within companies may sometimes be limited, you can still invest in team members’ professional development through training, assignment to new and interesting projects, participation on task forces, and exposure to new and interesting different areas through cross-training. Employees frequently have skills that extend beyond the position for which the company hired them. Additionally, they typically grow their skills over time. Leveraging these broad skill sets can lead to greater engagement and satisfaction.
- Involve employees. Team members feel valued when they have an opportunity to take part in decision-making, problem-solving, and to use their skills to benefit the organization. A 2012 study by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed the importance of employees’ opportunities to use skills and abilities, with 63% of respondents listing the ability to use their skills as the top driver of their job satisfaction.
- Support camaraderie and collegiality. I conducted a study many years ago on the positive benefits of friendship in the workplace. Camaraderie in the workplace can lead to greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization and doing a job well. Leaders should foster collegiality, help to eliminate toxic and dysfunctional team behaviors, and create opportunities for team members other than on work projects. At Google, the games/toys the company provides allow for entertaining and informal interactions among colleagues. These positive and fun feelings carry over when the colleagues work on projects together. The SHRM study in 2012 found employees’ relationships with their co-workers was the second highest factor related to their connection and commitment to the organization. Team leaders may also consider using social contracts, explicit agreements on how team members interact, to help shape positive behaviors within their teams.
Taking the time and effort to create a culture that values and appreciates the diversity and similarity within a team can reap great rewards in terms of performance and satisfaction of the entire team. At the end of the day, this principle is really very simple: we all want to feel valued and appreciated. So, in addition to overt recognition to employees, use a variety of ways to build a culture of gratitude.
Christine M. Riordan, PhD, is the 10th president of Adelphi University in New York. Her writing focuses on diversity and inclusion, leadership effectiveness, and career success. Follow her on Twitter at @Chris_M_Riordan.