Learning & Development

5 Methods to Express Gratitude and Workplace Celebrations

Great leaders understand the crucial role that gratitude and celebration play in cultivating an engaged, motivated, high-performing workforce. To foster a positive organizational culture, providing sincere, authentic praise is the most powerful gift a leader can give.

Although leaders, like everyone else, want to feel valued and appreciated for the work they do, why do so many find it difficult to articulate praise and inject recognition and celebration into daily practice? And with 73% of Gen-Z workers expressing a wish for more frequent recognition, why are leaders failing to provide this basic input?

There are several reasons beyond the natural British reserve. In some sectors, financial constraints, competitive pressures and demanding performance targets may make leaders fear accusations of using resources inappropriately or distracting focus from the task at hand. For other, less secure leaders, they may believe that expressing gratitude and praise makes them appear weak. Others may struggle to find the right approach, feeling awkward.

All these barriers can be overcome with the right intent. The key is to use the appropriate approach with sincerity. Any expression of appreciation must be authentic, genuine and specific if it is to land well and meaningfully. Flattery creates the opposite impact of sincere praise, making people feel suspicious and uncomfortable.

Of course, the methods of recognition and celebration need to be proportionate and sensitive to the prevailing environment. If resources are tight, there are plenty of low-cost, high-impact ways to celebrate and express sincere appreciation that makes people feel good and help to provide bursts of motivation that boost morale and commitment. Sharing specific, thoughtful observations will always form the basis of an effective approach.

This article describes five proven methods to express recognition, gratitude and appreciation for the efforts of others which any leader can add to their toolkit.

Using Symbols

Using symbols is a simple but impactful way to express gratitude. Providing a small, tangible reminder of appreciation can be affordable. In fact, sometimes the humblest of symbols can impart the greatest meaning when they are vested with genuine and significant words of thanks.

For example, I have bestowed a sticker, a plastic trophy and even a chocolate bar on colleagues to convey thanks and appreciation for their efforts. When these symbols are offered with authentic, specific expressions of gratitude, they take on meaning and become symbolic indicators of recognition, fueling a sense of being valued and appreciated.

Pairing the use of symbols with regular gatherings – such as a monthly team brief meeting – provides an opportunity to recognize individual and team achievements on a routine basis.

Highlight Important Events

Marking significant events, such as achieving a key organizational goal or responding to a major challenge, is a great way to celebrate discretionary effort and showcase the unifying impact of teamwork.

For example, coping with the COVID-19 pandemic represented a huge challenge to every healthcare organization. Throughout the pandemic, I was chairing Liverpool University Hospitals, one of the UK’s largest hospital trusts.  One of my colleagues suggested how the board could recognize the heroic efforts of all the staff who persevered at such a frightening time. To recognize and celebrate the courage, compassion and teamwork that were the hallmarks of the organization’s response, he recommended the board provide four things to all 14,000 members of staff: a thank you cupcake, a thank you card, a thank you pin, and a hoody embroidered with the trust’s name and the NHS rainbow.

The feedback was very positive. Although the impact of providing a cupcake or a thank you card will be fleeting, it is interesting how many staff wear their hoodies with pride to this day. The hoodies became a popular, unifying reminder of the trust’s response. I was struck by how many staff members had their names embroidered above the rainbow, signaling their personal connection to this significant event.

Incorporating Celebration and Gratitude into Daily Life

Establishing consistent methods to showcase accomplishments is a powerful way of recognizing effort and boosting morale. Again, these approaches do not need to incur significant expense, but when they are genuine and sincere, they create a lasting impact.

The simple act of saying thank you in writing is always received with great appreciation. Smart organizations recognize how motivating it is to receive genuine thanks and have created electronic systems to make it easy for thank you messages to be created and shared with any member of staff on an internal address list. One organization created a whole-company, weekly email to capture all the thank you messages colleagues had sent to each other and all the appreciative social media posts the organization had received.

Creating employee and team of the month awards is a great way to showcase the exceptional work colleagues deliver for each other, customers and stakeholders. It is important to define the award criteria to reinforce the organization’s goals and values. Reading out the nominations when presenting the awards enhances the impact on the recipients and builds a collective sense of pride.

Gain Insights from the Bad

While it may sound counter-intuitive, celebrating the lessons learned from mistakes is a key method for fostering a positive organizational culture that is focused on improvement.

Organizations can do this by recognizing individuals who identify when something has gone wrong and treating this act as worthy of recognition.

Speaking up about poor practices and problems is an indicator of psychological safety and a commitment to address and learn from mistakes. Praising and not blaming the individual who calls out the problems is an excellent way to nurture a positive culture.

Specific Feedback

All of the above approaches provide hints of motivation and positivity. They have the potential to contribute to a workplace where colleagues feel secure, inspired, and appreciated on a regular basis. But these strategies do have their limitations, particularly in providing ephemeral results. 

To achieve a long-lasting, positive impact there is no substitute for sharing thoughtful, specific examples of an individual’s contribution relayed as part of an appraisal, a feedback meeting or a team-building event. When these insights are sincere, specific, and personalized, they will be deeply felt. Leaders who provide this feedback help their colleagues feel valued, appreciated and recognized and are on the road to creating a positive organizational culture.

Sue Musson achieved her first board-level leadership role at the age of twenty-seven. Since then, she has learned a thing or two about leadership which she is keen to share with others.

She has led numerous organizations, including her own successful businesses under the Firecracker brand. Her experience of leadership spans the full gamut of highs and lows, which she recounts with honesty, insight, and humor.

Sue has had the honor of serving for fifteen years as a non-executive director and chair of five of the UK’s most significant healthcare organizations. She regularly chairs panels to appoint UK judges.

In her new book, Firecracker Leadership, Sue has drawn upon her extensive leadership experience to create a practical, “how to” toolkit to inform, reassure and challenge readers looking to supercharge their leadership skillset. Delving into the real-life challenges faced by leaders, this guide offers compelling case studies that reinforce the importance of what Sue coins “The Firecracker Leadership Framework”. www.suemusson.com.

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