Employee appreciation – the value of valuing people

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Employee appreciation is more than a nice-to-have, as this two-year research project by the University of Vienna shows. It’s a necessity to attract and retain talent in today’s competitive labor market. Employees who feel valued are more likely to remain engaged, motivated, and loyal to their organization. Executives and middle managers have a crucial role to play in creating an appreciative work environment. However, internal communication can amplify appreciation efforts and help create a workplace in which every individual feels valued, supported, and empowered to thrive.

Almost every second employee doesn’t feel appreciated

In recent years, organizations have faced unprecedented challenges: a global health crisis paired with the remote working revolution, high turnover and a shortage of skilled labor. At the same time, employees perceive their working conditions and these rapid developments as increasingly demanding and stressful. To meet these challenges, it is crucial for leaders to actively engage with their teams, showing genuine care and appreciation. Fostering trust and a feeling of belonging, irrespective of physical location, can make organizations better able to retain their talent and thrive in today’s competitive labor market.

Despite these findings, more than 40% of German employees (surveyed for this study) reported that they do not regularly receive appreciation from their bosses or peers — an alarming result.

So, this study by the Academic Society, in partnership with the University of Vienna, set out to better understand employees’ expectations, collate forms of expressing appreciation, analyze their effects, and research the role of managers and internal communicators in co-creating an appreciative working climate.

» It´s time to truly recognize and prioritize appreciation as a strategic goal. «

Professor Sabine Einwiller, University of Vienna

Employee expectations

Employees want to be appreciated for their personal characteristics and qualities and for work-related behaviors. These areas cannot be addressed all at once with equal focus, but they provide reference points for starting to think about how to create an appreciative working climate.

It is essential to get to know employees better to understand why they want to be appreciated and to implement communication practices accordingly. For example, recognizing employees for their situational extraordinary dedication is critically important, as appreciation is explicitly expected here. If it is lacking, it can strain the relationship between employer and employee.

Forms of appreciation

The research team identified 29 ways grouped in six distinct categories to express appreciation in the workplace. Monetary and material forms of recognition, such as pay, are important, but so are intangible forms, like praising employees for their achievements, giving feedback, assigning them meaningful tasks and offering opportunities for career and skills development. The latter becomes more relevant once an employee’s basic needs have been met.

What’s most important: Appreciation should be expressed on an on-going basis rather than sporadic gestures. Devoting time to employees, listening to their concerns, and demonstrating genuine interest in their well-being is key.

Effects of appreciation

Positive effects

Research in various fields has shown that employee appreciation yields positive effects for both individuals and organizations:

  • On the individual level, appreciation improves employees’ feeling of general well-being at work, helping them cope with stress. They feel more satisfied with their job, which enhances their intrinsic motivation and job engagement.
  • On the organizational level, appreciation increases employee performance and promotes loyalty to the organization. Studies found a clear link between appreciation, more substantial affective commitment, and reduced turnover intention.
  • Most importantly, feeling appreciated increases employees’ inclination to appreciate others in the organization.

Negative effects – the downside of appreciation

Understanding the dynamics of appreciation in the workplace requires knowledge of potentially negative unintended consequences. Various challenges and risks associated with appreciation were identified:

  • over-communicating appreciation that might feel dishonest and might lead to feelings of annoyance
  • withholding appreciation
  • an unfair selection process (when recognition or rewards are distributed in a biased or inequitable manner, e.g. equal pay)
  • undeserved ‘thank yous’ for achievements that don’t warrant recognition (in the employee’s eyes)
  •  ‘one- shot’ gestures rather than continuous appreciation
  • incentivizing excessive job engagement that might push employees beyond their personal boundaries
  • leaving appreciation entirely up to co-workers themselves.

The vital role of managers

Fostering an appreciative working climate requires collective effort on the part of various actors both inside and outside the organization. These include communication by and from the CEO, managers, co-workers, the unit responsible for internal communication, HR, and external parties, such as customers and the general public. The primary responsibility however rests upon the direct managers because of their immediate interactions with employees.

Managers should have a clear understanding of their communicative impact and responsibilities with regard to meeting employees’ expectations of appreciation. The challenge is to understand what employees want to be appreciated for, in order to then provide that appreciation.

Internal communication can help to create an appreciative working climate

  1. Internal communication professionals serve as strategic partners of management in the co-creation process of fostering an appreciative working climate. Their work involves gathering stakeholder perspectives on the topic (what do employees need, want, and desire), prioritizing employee concerns and needs, and providing adequate resources in support of appreciation efforts (e.g., forums, debates, workshops).
  2. Internal communication professionals act as enablers for all employees, with and without managements roles, to become active senders and receivers of appreciation by providing corresponding training and education. To fulfill this role, a close alliance with their colleagues from HR is crucial.
  3. Internal communication professionals act as role models, exemplifying employee appreciation, setting the general tone in internal communication, and living appreciation in their daily work. They can regularly communicate expectations and rules regarding appreciation in forums, or documented in a code of conduct.

About the study

The research team at the University of Vienna (Christopher Ruppel, Julia Stranzl, Sabine Einwiller, Jens Hagelstein, and Ingrid Wahl) conducted the research project “Employee Appreciation – The Value of Valuing People” between 2022 and 2024, using a mixed-method study design. It was the overall goal, to gain a deeper understanding of employee appreciation, with a particular focus on German-speaking Europe. The project comprised a systematic literature review, focus group discussions, and an online survey.