Appreciation notes can boost individual and team morale

“Positive attention is 30 times more powerful than negative attention,” as Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall shared. “People don’t need comments. They need focus on what they do best… Focus on strengths increases performance. Therefore, focusing on strengths is what creates growth. If, as a leader, you want to accelerate the growth of your team, you will have to play on the strengths of individuals and the collective. It starts with knowing not only your own strengths, but also the strengths of each person on your team. And it can start with a simple, thoughtful note of appreciation.

Play to their strengths.

Leaders around the world instinctively know that playing to the strengths of each member of their team will accelerate personal and organizational growth. But that’s easier said than done. Identifying strengths, our own or someone else’s, can be tricky. At Disruption Advisors, the tech-enabled talent development company one of us (Whitney) co-founded, we’ve taken a simple approach to identifying and then playing to team strengths. This is the exercise of writing appreciation notes.

This strategy is particularly effective in concluding our leadership retreats. Every participant, whether it’s the CEO or the new junior recruit, leaves with the same mission: to write a note of appreciation to each teammate over the next two weeks. To encourage follow-up, they also copy their team leader as well as someone from our firm.

A note of appreciation is not the generic thank you note that we have all received or, let’s be honest, written a hundred times. This requires specificity. The author should offer concrete examples that clearly explain the attribute or action valued and why it is appreciated.

Consider this real-life note:

I value and appreciate your unique perspective whenever we are faced with difficult and complex decisions. You bring pragmatism to our conversations, which moves us from theory to action. You weigh in on whether it’s the right thing for us to do, which helps us better live our values. You see all situations with empathy, helping us to make more thoughtful decisions. You bring a team spirit to decisions, rolling up your sleeves to help those in need and inspiring others to participate. You help us make decisions as a team.

Feedback on this activity is positive. Many people have been torn, these notes supporting them when the going gets tough. One person shared that the outpouring of appreciation was “one of the highlights of her year.”

Why review notes are so impactful

1. They help people see their strengths.

It is common for people to not recognize their own strengths. Because our superpowers are reflexively easy for us, we are often not only blind to them, but we may underestimate them. We may even reject them because we do them effortlessly.

Appreciation notes are a mirror that we can show our colleagues to help them see their strengths. It also allows us to explicitly communicate that these strengths are valuable to us and our team. Additionally, by copying the team leader on the appreciation email, the team leader can identify common themes, better understanding the strengths of a specific individual.

2. They focus our attention on what works.

Where we focus our attention matters. Neuroscience supports this, as Whitney explores in her latest book, Smart growth. Our brain has a magnificent filtering mechanism, organizing millions of data using a process called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). We largely form this filter ourselves (whether consciously or unconsciously) by telling our brains what to focus on. As with ads on social media feeds, whatever we pay attention to, we get more in return.

If we focus on what isn’t working, our brain will learn to look more for what isn’t working. But if our brain focuses on what works, we’ll get more of what works. When we tell our teammates what they do well in an appreciation note, we give them a conscious impetus to filter out their strengths.

3. They let people know they matter.

Work can get very tactical and it can be easy to focus more on our to-do lists than on our teammates. When we write a note of appreciation, we tell our colleague “I see you, I appreciate the work you do”. This is not only validation for them, but it reminds us that they are precious.

If you think that sounds silly, you’re not alone. Our human tendency is to think that critics are more insightful, more discriminating, and those who give praise are less sophisticated.

Most of us want to be perceived as sophisticated and demanding. Expressing your appreciation therefore becomes much more than writing a note. It’s a mental exercise that builds new neural pathways to combat the subconscious bias that elevates criticism above praise. Paraphrasing Gretchen Rubin: “Enthusiasm for a colleague requires social courage. It is an act of humility. It may be difficult, but humility and enthusiasm for our colleagues greases the gears of human interaction.

“Positive attention is 30 times more powerful than negative attention,” as Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall shared. “People don’t need comments. They need focus on what they do best… Focus on strengths increases performance. Therefore, focusing on strengths is what creates growth.

If, as a leader, you want to accelerate the growth of your team, you will have to play on the strengths of individuals and the collective. It starts with knowing not only your own strengths, but also the strengths of each person on your team.

And it can start with a simple, thoughtful note of appreciation.

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