Appreciated or Taken for Granted? A Tale of Two Workplace Cultures

Jun 6, 2014

The big, burly man began to choke up as he took in what the company’s internal leadership coach just said.

Moments before, this bear of a man, a grizzled veteran of the construction company challenged her assertion that he and his contribution at the company were valued.

Looking at her skeptically, he asked “How do you know that?

“Are you kidding?” the coach said with incredulity. “EVERYONE knows how valuable you are…Jack and Bob (his boss and boss’s boss) are always talking about how valuable you are and how important your contribution is to this company is,” she replied.

The need to recognize employees

At that point, his tough guy face softened. With his voice choking, he responded “You know, I’ve been here 30 years and that is the first time anyone has ever told me that.”

He paused and continued: “Don’t take this wrong, but…it’s too bad that this had to come from you, and not my bosses….you know what I mean?

She sure did. First, she knew what he meant because she understands human nature while clearly his boss and the other leaders don’t. They are still stuck in the old school management philosophy that maintains that if you compliment employees or show appreciation, they’ll lose their drive to achieve and excel.

She also knew what he meant because she had conversations with her boss — a senior executive at the company — about her practice of letting employees know they are valuable and valued.

“We don’t do that here,” he had admonished.

Incredulous, she asked why. His response: “We just don’t.

And now for a very different culture …

Now, contrast this story with an incident that took place in a very different kind of company, Jøtul North America. A frequent member of the Best Places to Work list in Maine, Jøtul North America manufactures wood and gas stoves and inserts.

The “incident” was a 10-year anniversary for Don Gregor, an employee described by HR Manager Krista Irmischer as “a really kind man who brings out the best in everybody.” As Don and his wife sat together on a couch that had been moved to the front of the breakroom, Jøtul sales rep Tim Gerencer read a heartfelt “Ode to Don Gregor” that celebrated not only Don’s contribution to Jøtul North America, but also celebrated him as a person.

“People were teary-eyed as he read this really touching tribute,” noted Krista. “As this is happening, I’m thinking ‘I work in one of the most amazing places’.”

After the tribute, co-worker Paul Andrews conducted a game show “Do You Know Don?” It included questions such as “What is Don’s favorite breed of dog?” (answer: German Shepherd) and “What is Don’s favorite lunch?” (answer: Harmon’s Clam Cakes, a Maine classic).

While this clever and amusing “game show” got laughs from the group, it also communicated something very serious and important. It said to Don: “We see you. We care enough to know who you are as a person” — something that we all hunger for and employees so rarely get in an increasingly impersonal workplace.

Showing appreciation for great work – and great values

Closing the celebration, Bret Watson, the president, talked about how he saw Don embodying Jøtul North America’s core values: Kind, respectful, grateful, strong work ethic, high standards.

When several former co-workers posted on the Jøtul Facebook page congratulating Don, here’s what he wrote:

I couldn’t help but think of you, Joel, Chad, and Andy, and many others today. I wish you all were there! It was truly a moving afternoon. The great people of JNA made a memory for me that I’ll remember forever. Tim gave a speech that moved me beyond what words can say. Paul put on a “game show like” quiz of “how well do you know Don?” He knows me very well, highlighting my Dallas Cowboys, German Shepherds, Mountain Dew and even Harmon Clam cakes!

Between Tim and, (then) Bret’s closing statement that made me so proud to be with JNA, it was a surreal moment and it was pretty awesome! I’m thankful to be surrounded by the great people there and it’s truly the main reason I am able to do what I do! We miss you too Sparky, so stop by when you can!”

The line “I’m thankful to be surrounded by the great people there and it’s truly the main reason I am able to do what I do” captures part of why I wanted to share this story and why it is juxtaposed against the first story.

Working in a company where people care about others, where managers and peers express appreciation, and where you feel like you matter as an individual, doesn’t just make people feel good. It makes employees want to do their best and be their best. It makes employees want to be helpful to their peers and work together as a team.

How to put these stories to use

You can use these two scenarios as both a diagnostic tool and a source of ideas for creating a stronger, more supportive culture people feel seen, valued, and appreciated. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Share this article with your management team and ask “Which of these stories sounds more like our organization? Which scenario is more likely to happen in our organization…and why do you say that?” You can use this article to cast a light on ways your culture might be more like the first story. You can use it as a catalyst to identify what you are doing well as a company, and to identify “bright spots” and exemplars who are doing things others could emulate.
  2. Use this article as a catalyst to explore how both management and individual contributors can work together to cultivate a culture of appreciation and goodwill. Creating such a culture is NOT just management’s job. It is everyone’s job. When co-workers are generous with praise and appreciation, and other expressions of goodwill, it doesn’t just affect the emotional climate of the organization. Such acts build relationships that prevent silos, “Us vs. Them” perceptions, and other types of relationship friction that translates into operational friction, and therefore inefficiency.
  3. Engage individual employees in conversations about what is most meaningful to them when it comes to appreciation and being seen and treated as an individual. Besides giving you valuable information that enables you to tailor your management to each individual, just asking employees this shows you care about them as individuals.
  4. Borrow and adapt the specific “techniques” used to celebrate Don as a person and as a contributor. While you can simply do the same things as the Jøtul team did, even better, use the story as a catalyst to help your team generate their own home-grown approach. As with any idea, the more it comes from your employees, the more meaningful it will be.