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ATD Blog

The Power of Appreciation

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Quick, the following people have something in common: Missy Elliott, Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, and Charley Pride. What is it? Think for a moment. You could say they are all humans. Yes. They are all in the music business. Yes. They all perform different types of music. Yes. Now let’s make this a little trickier—what do we have in common regarding their music? The answer? We can all appreciate their music. Some may be drawn more to rap than soul, and some may prefer pop over country, but we can all be thankful for the music.

Appreciation. Amid the all-encompassing (and necessary) movements in the world of diversity, inclusion, and equity, we mustn’t leave out the role appreciation plays in our lives and in our ability to develop our workforces. Appreciation is the intimately human dynamic that tells our colleagues we value them for who they are and the unique gifts they bring. Appreciation and gratitude in the workplace help build organizational trust and pave the way for innovative and creative thought. Appreciation allows people to feel that they are needed and that their talents are valued.

Organizational psychologists note that when we feel valued, it builds our sense of efficacy. Indeed, efficacy is jet fuel for motivation. When our teams are motivated, they perform better, have less turnover, and engage more readily. But the impact of appreciation transcends the workplace. It also contributes to improved quality of life. Research shows a connection, for example, between appreciation and happiness. University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman found that when people wrote letters of gratitude to others, the happiness level of the writer improved and remained elevated for a full 30 days.

Life satisfaction can also be increased. In a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found what they referred to as a “virtuous circle of human well-being.” As part of this cyclical dynamic, researchers uncovered that increased gratitude boosted life satisfaction, leading to more gratitude. Finally, in a landmark study, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami assigned individuals to jot down a few thoughts each week. The individuals were grouped into three sections, with the first section writing about things they appreciated, the second writing about things that bothered them, and the third recording neutral events. Almost three months later, the group writing about gratitude had a more positive view on life and showed more signs of happiness when compared to the other two groups.


So how do we use this information as training and development experts? It’s simple. Incorporate the necessary practices into our development programs. Encourage those in our workforce to start journaling. It may sound daunting initially, but a few short sentences once a week in a journal can greatly improve their outlook on work and life, especially if those thoughts are couched in appreciative terms. Simple meditative exercises also work, such as spending time thinking about or talking about someone for whom you are grateful. This works especially well in group settings. We may even consider opening our meetings with a quick comment from everyone in the room as to what they are thankful for or appreciate at that moment. This can be made even more personal by asking people to discuss what they value about an individual in the room. Finally, learn to say thank you in multiple languages. It’s always fun and helps develop the brain.

Encouraging the presence and practice of appreciative exercises throughout the workforce has significant benefits. They give us a greater sense of self and self-worth and open the door to sharing our gratitude for all the gifts that our peers bring to the table. Appreciative exercises fuel connection and innovation and strengthen our organizations.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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