“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” — William James, American philosopher
I almost didn’t go back the next day. After a long performance review with my supervisor where he outlined all of the areas in which I could improve without so much as offering a small acknowledgment of appreciation — I was done.
This was years ago when I was pursuing my first job as a Junior Developer at a small software firm. I was a recent graduate and had moved to New York City to make a name for myself. What I most wanted at the time was to make a dent with the work I was doing. I craved validation, a few pats on the back.
What I received, however, was an assessment of what I was doing wrong.
Maybe you’ve been there, continuously putting in the work with little recognition in return. It’s like that philosophical thought experiment:
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
When we labor for hours over a project but don’t get a “thanks, good job” in return, have we even done anything with our time?
This was what weighed on my mind all those years ago after my performance review. I was, in my mind, justifiably upset, hurt, and harboring a bruised ego.
But here’s the thing. For all my self-pity (which was plenty), I didn’t take any steps to improve my situation.
Fast-forward to where I am now: as CEO of JotForm, a business with over 140 employees and millions of users — I can see my past-self with a little more clarity.
It’s easy to assume that my supervisor was at fault for not offering up more praise, but the reality is: most effective leaders are busy.
I’m not saying they don’t have a responsibility to be more appreciative of their team, but the fast pace of most organizations makes it so that most employee contributions go unnoticed. But as Karen Dillon told Harvard Business Review, we aren’t powerless to change our situation. “There are many ways to make sure people understand and see what you do.”
The key, according to Dillon, is to find diplomatic ways to make your work more visible.
The importance of feeling valued at work
“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.”
– Sam Walton, founder of Walmart
In an illuminating article for NBC News, CEO and philanthropist David Novak asserts there’s a tremendous lack of recognition in the world today, which he aptly calls “global recognition deficit.” A privately-funded study conducted by O.C. Tanner found that 79 percent of employees who quit their jobs cited a lack of appreciation as a major reason for leaving.
This feels true to my experience as a young developer. Though I didn’t end up walking out of my job, a lack of thanks was the biggest reason for me feeling unmotivated that first year.
What I wish I knew then? How to be more proactive.
No matter where you find yourself in your career, I’d like to offer some ideas for how to make sure your contributions get recognized.
Ask for feedback, and do it often
Instead of quietly sulking in the back of the office, I wish I’d known to actively seek out regular feedback from my boss. It can seem intimidating — asking about what you can do better can feel like opening yourself up to a deluge of criticism, but as I’ve written before, seeking out feedback, both positive and negative, takes us much further than remaining silent.
And if the thought of approaching your supervisor makes you break out in a nervous rash, try rehearsing first with a trusted senior colleague or mentor until you feel more at ease asking for input.
Tout your own leadership
But before you do, set some time aside each week to pat yourself on the back and catalog your wins. You can’t expect someone else to notice what you’re doing right if you’re not keeping track yourself. Then draw attention to the projects and teams you’re working on — making sure your supervisor and colleagues are aware of all your efforts. This doesn’t have to be a self-aggrandizing activity — you can subtly bring it up in work presentations or in meetings.
Generate optimism by paying it forward
Keep in mind that a lack of office appreciation is often systemic. “We tend to think of organizations as transactional places where you’re supposed to be ‘professional,’” Ryan Fehr told Greater Good Magazine.
“We may think that it’s unprofessional to bring things like forgiveness or gratitude or compassion into the workplace.”
But in fact, appreciation inspires connection and authenticity which directly impacts our engagement. The best part? You don’t have to wait to be noticed to make a difference — you can create a more positive culture by regularly praising and appreciating others in your workplace. Keep your eyes open for when someone in your office is doing something right and let them know you see their efforts.
American businessman Douglas Conant, said it best:
“Even a brief interaction can change the way people think about themselves, their leaders, and the future. Each of those many connections you make has the potential to become a high point or a low point in someone’s day.”
Find meaning in the work itself
My last bit of advice for my past-self? Don’t rely on external accolades.
Maybe you’ll discover that despite your best efforts, you need to move on to another work environment. After all, constantly having your contributions overlooked can mess with your self-esteem and be a miserable way to pass the time.
But ultimately, feeling valued should come from an intrinsic motivation that doesn’t depend on outside validation. By finding fulfillment in the work itself, you can remember the reasons behind why you’re doing what you do. Or as author Terry Orlick put it:
“The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion.”