How leaders should show employee appreciation

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” — William James, the “father” of American psychology

You will note that William James did not speak of “desire” or “wish.” He said “craving.” Even though his words were spoken many years ago, they hold as true today as ever.

What I find interesting is how this concept applies in the modern workplace, especially in the relationship between leaders and their people. In study after study about employee engagement in recent years, the number one reason an employee is engaged is because of a positive relationship with their supervisor. As you look at these studies, it is common to see “recognition for a job well done” as a consistent factor in that engagement.

However, when we ask people what gets in the way of positive recognition and appreciation, we hear the same litany over and over: it takes too much time; if I say something nice to one person, others will feel slighted; praise will go to their head; you have to be careful of what you say, especially with our performance review process; don’t know how; and the list goes on.

Lou Holtz, former football coach, once said: “You better darn well appreciate those around you before someone else does.” In a world where people hop from one job to another all too often his words ring true, especially as they relate to employee retention and turnover.

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie’s second principle is: “Give honest, sincere appreciation.” He was talking about the real thing, not the half-hearted thank you that many of us hear from some customer service folks. The POWER of honest and sincere appreciation is incredible. When a supervisor sees something in one of their people that the person is not even aware of, it is a person-building moment. I can speak from my own experience.

Early in my sales career with Dale Carnegie Training, I found myself in a sales slump. For anyone who has been in sales for a while, you can probably relate. I was down so far I did not even know where “up” was. In fact, I was strongly considering quitting my job. In the middle of all this, I received a hand-written letter from my boss. It said “Way to go, TIGER!!!!” The word TIGER took up a third of the page. This was followed by two or three specific examples of some positive things I had accomplished the previous week that I was barely aware of. I still have that letter from more than 30 years ago! The point here is that my boss hit my “craving” right in the center of my target and it was a defining moment in my career.



It also highlights how to show sincere appreciation with a compliment. Don’t just tell the person what you like — add evidence and tell them why you say that. The what without the why is pretty weak.

So, if building people and making them successful is one of the primary roles of a good leader, why not address the “deepest craving in human nature,” and do exactly that. If Mark Twain, one of the most acidic American personalities, could “go for two months on a good compliment,” think what it might mean for your people. By the way, this holds true for personal relationships, as well. It is not uncommon to forget those closest to us.

We will end with these words from Dale Carnegie:

“You have it easily in your power to increase the sum total of this world’s happiness now. How? By giving a few words of appreciation to someone. Perhaps you will forget the kind words you say today, but the recipient may cherish them for a lifetime.”

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