As I See It: A Different Currency
March 22, 2010 Victor Rozek
It all seems like a fairy tale now, as if I am recalling events that took place long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But believe it or not, there was a time when businesses actually competed for skilled IT professionals. In the early 1980s, when Silicon Valley was booming, job-hopping was a way of life. The need for IT skills was urgent, and those who had them were regularly besieged by recruiters. Enticed by higher salaries, signing bonuses, and ridiculous perks, defections were as common as keyboards.
It was the time when workplaces morphed into “campuses” complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, and fully equipped gyms. Most everyone had a work-out bag stashed in their cubicle and was encouraged to use it, even during business hours. In contrast to today’s thinking that workers are a liability to be shed like unwanted skin, management appeared to actually like their employees and took steps to please them.
People under 35 will find it hard to imagine, but back then there was no outsourcing; no downsizing, no rightsizing, or any other euphemism for dumping employees. Companies were growing so quickly that jobs went unfilled, and if you qualified for one, employers happily pumped money into your retirement account, and there was a good chance you could get an annual pay increase.
Still, there were people who stayed put; people who were willing to work for less money, in less glamorous surroundings, and refused to participate in the dollar chase. They valued a different currency.
As a young manager hoping to retain my staff, I recall reading the results of a survey that asked employees what made them content to stay in their current positions even though better paying opportunities beckoned. The usual reasons were cited: proximity to home, interesting work, opportunity for advancement. But the answer most often mentioned was so profoundly simple that it had the unmistakable ring of a universal truth: They stayed because they felt appreciated.
Of course, conditions are different now. Jobs are scarce and competition for them is fierce. Most people appreciate just having a job, regardless of salary. And benefits, unless you’re a bankster, are minimal. Recruiters stopped calling long ago, and now most managers are worried about staying employed themselves. They don’t perceive the need to express appreciation because their people aren’t going anywhere. At least not voluntarily.
But that’s a mistake. During times of economic stress, appreciation assuages fear and is key to maintaining morale and inspiring loyalty. A fearful workplace is poorly productive. Over time, if employees are too scared to innovate, too scared to take risks, too scared to speak truth to management, the spirit of an enterprise dies. What remains are empty husks who do repetitive work without question or joy–or any shred of added value. And should the economy take a turn for the better, a demoralized workforce will prove slow to take advantage of fresh opportunities. The unappreciated, who have kept the company afloat, will bail. Only those with few skills and fewer options will be eager to stay.
There are in fact signs that ambition is becoming one of the casualties of the recession. Reuters reports that “many workers around the world have given up hopes of advancing in their jobs, but the bad economy is keeping them from finding new ones.” They’re called “nesters” and all they want is to stay with one employer for their entire career. Reuters likens them to the “walking wounded,” workers who are “increasingly exchanging ambition for job stability, which now even trumps pay as a consideration.” Of course stability is an illusion, and often a worker’s ability to survive the next round of layoffs is directly proportional to the amount of abuse he or she is willing to endure.
A frightened, compliant, and obedient workforce may be Wall Street’s wet dream, but unappreciated people are poor profit-makers and their discontent will eventually leak out in unpredictable ways, from theft and illness, to workplace shootings.
The irony of appreciation is that it is so simple, yet so underused. Whether in the home or the workplace; whether the relationships are personal or professional, most people never feel fully appreciated. It is a common lament among those aware enough to know they are being taken for granted. As for those who have given up on being appreciated, they are left to experience an unspecific weariness, a heaviness which infects their relationships and drains their productive energy.
Having said that, giving and receiving appreciation can sometimes be tricky because the effort employees expend, and the sacrifices they make, are not always visible. And even when it is given mindfully, an expression of gratitude is not always received without resistance.
A two-hour commute, for example, is viewed as an unfortunate fact of life rather than a daily demonstration of commitment. As is the sacrifice a single parent makes by choosing work over child. To the extent that choice is unrelated to performance, it remains unacknowledged, but it is no less excruciating for that. Likewise, if a person is capably doing a job he doesn’t like, or is silently performing tasks that don’t fulfill him, no one knows the price he pays for doing them. The employee who works grave shift without complaint; the invisible team member who seeks no self aggrandizement; the person who puts in extra hours working from home; chances are no one knows the depth of their dedication, and no one comments on it.
Payment, of course, is appreciation of sorts, but it is given in acknowledgment of what employees do, not who they are. To that extent it is therefore psychologically unsatisfying because the recipient never feels fully visible. Payment, like the job performance that earns it, becomes the baseline–the mutual expectation that what is will continue to be. Compensation is value for value given; it is a form of trade, not an expression of gratitude. Even a generous salary will, over time, begin to seem normal and expected. Likewise employees who excel become discounted if their performance is constant and can be relied upon without need for management intervention. Whatever is steady, unchanging, and predictable will eventually become invisible.
On the other side of the coin stands the employee who is acknowledged and appreciated but isn’t able to hear it. There is a phenomenon called the “upper limits theory,” which posits that each of us has a limit on how much success, praise, generosity, love, intimacy, connection, and general goodness we can handle without experiencing discomfort and anxiety.
For people with self-worth issues, or those accustomed to being overlooked, that upper limit can be very low. Expressions of appreciation will quickly make them uncomfortable. They will deflect, deny, or minimize their contributions in an effort not to be seen too clearly. In the extreme, people will sabotage their good fortune in order to return to an internal state that is more manageable: if they don’t accept praise they won’t be disappointed when it is withheld. Momentary discomfort, however, simply means the person is becoming overloaded; it doesn’t mean they don’t value the gesture.
Because individuals experience appreciation differently based on their preferred learning style, it is important that all three primary styles–visual, auditory, and kinesthetic–are included in any expression of gratitude. For the visual person, a plaque or a card, or some other visual representation of appreciation will be most meaningful. For the auditory person, being told they are appreciated will be enough. The kinesthetic learner will want some physical reinforcement like a handshake, a pat on the back, or a hug if appropriate. When unsure of a person’s preference, use all three modalities.
As for me, I want to express my heartfelt appreciation to all of the readers who have taken time to comment on various articles I have written. You are a kind and generous bunch and I much enjoy reading your thoughts, even when they differ from mine (OK, agreeing with me is better). And rest assured you can keep the comments coming. My upper limit tends to be pretty high.