“You did a good job!” Aren’t those nice words to hear? Most of us appreciate a little appreciation once in a while. But there’s one surefire way to make recognition backfire.

That word, appreciation, comes equipped with two dictionary definitions. The first is obvious: “recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” It’s what we are getting with “right on!” and “nice work!” and “keep it up!” To be appreciated means that someone saw what we did and told us about it. Or to use a tired, but concise expression: to catch someone doing something right.

But the term comes with a second description as well: “a full understanding of a situation.” This is what it means to have an appreciation of a complex relationship or an elegant technical solution. To genuinely appreciate is not merely to acknowledge that something is good, but to know it well enough to understand why it is good.

And that, dear reader, is the problem.

To best understanding appreciation in the workplace, it’s good to start with something that looks like it but isn’t: fandom. If you’ve got a favorite book, movie, or series, you’re a fan. If you’ve got a favorite filmmaker, artist, band, or Supreme Court Justice, you’re a fan. Having a manageable obsession with a piece of media, a celebrity, or a fictional character is perfectly healthy. It’s also a one-way street.

You may love all of the young women from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, but they don’t love you back. That’s not how it works. Fandom is the junior varsity team for appreciation, as it only covers the first half of the definition. You can’t have “a full understanding of the situation” when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys because you can’t talk to the coaches, players, and the staff whenever you want. It’s full-on fandom, but only somewhat appreciation. To appreciate someone or something, you have to be in a mutual relationship with them. And that’s why so much “appreciation” at work is a total disaster.

Appreciation Without Understanding Is Empty
The person giving an accolade must know what they are talking about to be able to effectively express positive sentiment. When they say: “Really nice job on this project!” you might hear I know you did something great, but I don’t have any idea what it is. That’s the verbal equivalent of unsweetened cotton candy. It might look like something to an outside observer, but when you bite down there’s nothing there and nothing to enjoy.

Try this instead: “I understand you’re proud of this work. Do you mind explaining to me a bit about what you did?”

Appreciation Without Follow Up Is Hollow
Telling someone you’re pleased with their work? That’s potentially a solid step one. Now it’s on to the second step, which is to do something with the praise. Otherwise: “Thanks for all your hard work.” sounds like Thanks for all your hard work. Now get back to the grind, minion. The attagirl is like a microscopic performance review that comes back all positive. It’s the opening bars to a song, which implies something more is coming. But if you say nothing else, then it probably isn’t.

Try this instead: “This is great work. I’m making a note to bring this up in your annual review!”

Appreciation Without Action Breeds Contempt
This blog post is filled with clichés. Next up: “Talk is cheap.” Telling someone how wonderful they are is flattery, which works as long as they believe you. But if you want someone to feel good about what you’ve said, spend more time focusing on what you do. Here’s the list:

  • Learn about what they just did so you can talk intelligently with them about the achievement
  • Support their progress by taking note of it, by asking how what resources you can provide in the    future, or get them to list what helped/hindered success
  • Give them what they like. Cash, time off, public praise, private praise, training, or something else. Which comes from…
  • Listen more than you talk when you’re giving praise.

Appreciate your employees, and not just on employee appreciation day. But more important than saying they are great—do the work necessary to show them your appreciation is about them, not about you.

Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork.

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