Sharon sat down and stared at the “Employee of the Year” plaque on her wall. She knew this was a high honor, but after the last 24 hours, the distinction felt hollow. She could not understand where the frustration and sense of disappointment were coming from, but they overwhelmed her as she felt a lump rise in her throat.
Sharon had been in this position for 27 years. She was well compensated and had a good amount of trust and respect in the organization as the executive assistant of the CEO.
Today was the first time she had seriously considered quitting. Al Casias was no-nonsense and often blunt, but Sharon had always been convinced that he was motivated by a desire to make the company as strong as it could be.
Sharon took a deep breath and knocked on the doorway between their offices. “Can I bug you for a minute?” she asked.
Casias looked up from his laptop. “Sure thing, Sharon. What’s up?” Sharon paused.
“I – I’m thinking it may be time for me to make a change,” she responded.
“You mean quit?” Sharon had his full attention.
“I guess, yes. I mean quit,” she answered.
“Why? Why now?”
“I have been trying to put my finger on the growing frustration I feel right now,” Sharon began, “and the only word I can find that seems close is – underappreciated.” Casias stared at Sharon.
“How is that possible, Sharon?” he asked openly. “Just last week, you were literally the Employee of the Year. I praise you publicly anytime I get a chance. You’ve not gone a single year for over a decade without an award or bonus for the work you do – and it is good work. Amazing work. I don’t get it.”
Sharon took a deep breath. “I – first, thank you. I know you do recognize me publicly. You’ve always worked hard at that.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“As someone who really enjoys making a difference from behind-the-scenes, public recognition is very uncomfortable for me. I hate feeling put on the spot – that’s not why I do what I do.”
Casias blinked. “I guess I’m missing something. What would make you feel genuinely appreciated, then?”
Sharon sat down and looked across the desk at Casias. “This morning when HR approached you about my involvement in training and mentoring, you dismissed the request, saying I am too busy. But if I am so valuable to the company, let me help others grow into their full potential,” she said, her eyes lighting up.
“I’ve done this job for a long time. I’ve seen all the pitfalls that executive assistants can be exposed to, and I know how to avoid them. I know I’m getting older and won’t be here forever. It seems like such a waste not to be able to pass on what I’ve learned to others.”
Casias leaned forward. “Sharon, I was trying to protect you. I didn’t think you’d want to take on more work that’s outside of your required responsibilities.”
“I know,” Sharon acknowledged. “That’s why I’m talking to you. I know you’re trying. Most people may love public recognition and bonuses. But I’m already making good money, and I’m at a different phase of my life. I don’t really need accolades. I want – I want a legacy.”
Recognition is not Appreciation
One of the greatest mistakes we can make is conflating recognition (public acknowledgment of an accomplishment) with appreciation (rendering high value, meaning, significance). While it is true that some will feel appreciated when they are publicly recognized, not everyone feels appreciated through public recognition. Like the principle of “love languages,” people feel appreciated in many different ways.
Every person in the organization wants to feel appreciated. Don’t assume that the person “over” or “under” you knows they’re valuable just because of their title or role. No matter your position, you have the power and responsibility to make others feel valued and seen.
If you feel frustrated with a sense of underappreciation, you could ask yourself:
- Have I been clear/open with others about what makes me feel valued and appreciated?
- Have I recognized/appreciated others’ efforts to express appreciation to me, even if their efforts didn’t resonate?
- How can I make it easier for genuine appreciation to flow both ways?
How can you show genuine appreciation?
1. Be present. (Don’t miss the “little things.”) There’s no getting around the need to simply paying attention to the way people feel appreciated. Watch what causes people to light up. Get hints by observing the “little things” that seem meaningful to them. What’s on their desk? What do they spend their time doing outside of work? If in doubt, simply ask what makes them feel appreciated – especially among those you work with most.
2. Bring out the hero. Appreciation is about recognizing the full weight of the unique contribution each person brings to the team. When you see someone quietly bringing what they have to increase the value of the project, the customer experience, or the company, tell them that you noticed. Describe how doing that consistently will impact everyone else. Make sure they are awake to how they are adding value, even with the “little things.”
3. Base your engagement on what they value. Today the Japanese yen may be technically worth more on the global market than the U.S. dollar – but that doesn’t mean that the average person in your company would prefer to be paid in yen. When you discover what each person appreciates, you can show appreciation in a way that resonates with them. A great book to help with this is Encouraging the Heart.
The greatest gift we can give to others (whether we’re in charge or the direct report) – is to take time to see others and render proper value to their contributions as human beings.
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