Appreciation versus Recognition. There is a Big Difference!

I remember how, as a director of nursing, I wanted to give my staff something that would demonstrate how much they were appreciated, and I didn’t want to wait until the holidays arrived to do it. Yes, we had the occasional team celebrations, but it always seemed that more should be done to show them how much I valued the work they did. The staff worked hard and were underpaid for the physical and emotional toll of their caregiving role.

Years later, as part of my doctoral work on leadership, I researched the topic of resilience. To my surprise, being thankful and showing appreciation to those around us plays a significant role in managing stress and developing resilience, particularly in difficult work environments. Being thankful, or having an “attitude of gratitude,” as I often call it, benefits both giver and receiver and has no financial cost requirements. Dr. Paul White, author of The Vibrant Workplace, lists six positive results of leaders’ showing appreciation for staff. Here are three examples:

  1. Reinforces value of the employee
  2. Increases communication between leaders and staff
  3. Creates positive energy for both parties

Many leaders confuse appreciation with recognition; rather than focusing on appreciation in the workplace, they develop recognition programs that are complicated, overly structured, and difficult to sustain, such as Employee of the Month. In an organization with hundreds of employees it can be years before everyone has a chance at this level of recognition. Interestingly, White suggests that this type of employee recognition program can backfire and result in reduced employee morale and apathy, as many of these programs recognize only those employees who meet specific goals and often overlook those who show up, get the work done, and pick up extra shifts. Outstanding staff often “fly under the radar” and are not formally recognized, and often don’t want to be. In a Boston Consulting Group study of 200,000 employees, the top reason staff reported for enjoying their work was feeling appreciated by their supervisor. These results are supported by similar research on working environments. In a Gallup study (2017) of over 500,000 employees, the top reason employees left their work was related to the lack of a positive work environment and interaction with their supervisor.

Recently, while doing some consulting work with an organization, I heard that one of the nurses was leaving her position. After thinking about the enormous contribution she had made to that community, I mentioned to the director that if they had a farewell party for her I wanted to attend. I wanted to take the opportunity to let her know how much I had appreciated all she had done for the community and greater organization through her hard work and contributions toward improving resident outcomes. Then something occurred to me. Why had I never told her that before? Why would I wait until she was leaving the organization to let her know how appreciative I was of her work? Maybe she wouldn’t be leaving if she felt appreciated and knew how important she was to the organization. It was a light bulb moment for me. I realized how much I needed to start being more appreciative of those around me. When was the last time I told the nursing assistant thank you for his compassion towards Lucy on her bad days in the Memory Care unit? When was the last time I told the receptionist how appreciative I was of her smile and warm welcome? When was the last time I told the housekeeper how nice the rooms looked?

Being appreciative of others does not come naturally for many leaders. After years in management roles, leaders come to practice the adage “No news is good news.” If people come to work and get their work done, we don’t need to worry about it. For the workforce of today, however, that is not enough. The expectations of the workforce have changed. The challenges of the regulatory process are more demanding. Retention and employee satisfaction are declining. Staff are looking for feedback from their supervisors that helps them feel they are making a difference, are valuable to the organization, and are missed when they are not there. As leaders in challenging, stressful work environments, we must be mindful of those around us and the contributions they make to caring for our residents and their families. Leaders must be intentional about doing it. We must practice offering appreciation to staff on a regular basis and developing an attitude of gratitude.

The most interesting part of developing such an attitude and showing appreciation for others is that the research literature is replete with the personal health benefits of doing so. People with increased levels of positivity have reduced stress, increased resilience, and enhanced critical thinking abilities. All leaders can benefit from those!

So, if you want to develop a new habit that has a positive impact on the workplace, try spreading appreciation around. Set a goal of showing appreciation to at least three different people each day. Based on the research and my own personal practice of showing appreciation, I’m betting that you will discover the powerful benefits of having an attitude of gratitude and the effect it can have on both leaders and followers.

So how to get started? First, start with enhancing your attitude toward appreciation. You must develop personal habits that show appreciation for what you have personally. Try this: each morning before getting out of bed, write down seven things you are thankful for. Consider getting a journal so that you can reflect on your thoughts. Challenge yourself to find seven different things each day. You will find that over a very short time you will begin to develop an improved attitude toward appreciation.

Second, to increase your appreciation of those at work, try this. Anytime you have an interaction with someone—staff, resident, supervisor, or family member—give that person a compliment. It can be about the person’s work, something positive you heard about them, saw him or her doing, or just the fact of showing up for work today. This show of appreciation is a powerful tool for building trust between leaders and followers, letting staff know they are valued, and making a difference in the lives of those we serve. When staff feel appreciated by their leaders, they will in turn begin to appreciate each other more, which can only result in a much more positive working environment that impacts both residents and families. Appreciation can become the gift to staff that continues to be special throughout the year.

Finally, start now. Tell us what you are thankful for. We would love to hear from you.


Dr. Linda Shell, MA. RN |

Dr. Linda Shell MA, RN, principal and co-owner of LindaShell.Com and Legacy Market Services, Inc, has over twenty-five years of experience providing education, leadership development and consultation to non-profit and for-profit senior care organizations.