A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way

By Gayla Greenly

I’m not typically one to browse the self-help section at the bookstore, but about 20 years ago I came across a book that changed my personal life, and I set out to apply it to my REALTOR® association.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was awkward. How do you talk about love at the office?

It was Dr. Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts that made me a true believer in the importance of showing people love in the way they best relate to it and receive it. But I didn’t necessarily love my board of directors.

So as an experiment, I put my association staff through the love languages assessment at a retreat, and they humored me. But as we actually implemented the practice of showing love (appreciation) to each other in the office, a transformation happened. We created a more positive work environment. Over time we had very low staff turnover, and those who did move on did so for personal reasons but said that they loved working at the Wyoming ­Association of REALTORS®. One employee told me she had never worked anywhere that cared enough about her and the harmony of the office to go through assessments and ­trainings such as this.

Although it worked well for my staff, I was apprehensive about putting my board through the same training. Then, after a bit of research, I found the solution: Chapman had co­authored a book with Dr. Paul White to apply the same general principles to a professional environment: The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People. Rather than implementing a formal program, I tried to practice these principles as part of my overall leadership style. I showed authentic appreciation to people who were at times cranky, complaining, and argumentative, and it worked. It resulted in improved relationships.

When I would listen patiently to their concerns, I heard what was really upsetting them (they didn’t feel appreciated in whatever area they were complaining about), and then I would show them the appreciation they needed. I made friends with people whom others, including my predecessors, had considered enemies.

One time, a past president known for his abrasive manner emailed me with a complaint. Instead of responding defensively, I acknowledged his many years of service and his ongoing RPAC support and respectfully addressed his concerns. A few days later, I received a call from his wife, also a past president. She thanked me for being truly appreciative of his contributions and shared that he had felt pushed aside, no longer relevant or respected, and angry that no one had previously addressed his issue. My response left him feeling valued. It took a few minutes to research and respond, but the result of showing him appreciation was a future of harmonious interactions with him and his wife.

So, how can you try this approach at your REALTOR® association?

A harmonious association culture begins with the staff and leadership and permeates all aspects of the association. Everyone wants to feel valued and that their efforts matter. When people don’t feel appreciated, there is not only a higher turnover rate among staff and fewer volunteers but conflict goes up; trust, productivity, quality of work, and member service ratings go down.

An appreciation program isn’t a magic potion and isn’t guaranteed to transform your culture, but it’s a great place to start if you want to enjoy your work, help your staff become more contented, guide your leaders to a more gratifying service, and keep your ­volunteer ranks full.

How to get started with appreciation. For individuals to truly feel valued, appreciation has to be:

1. Communicated regularly. Once or twice a year at a member appreciation picnic or awards banquet isn’t effective. People need frequent feedback that they are valued (the frequency will differ according to the individual and the setting).

2. Individualized and personal. A blast email to the board saying, “Good job, team. Way to get the project done,” is not as effective as you may think. Focusing on individuals and their specific contribution is far more meaningful.

3. Perceived as authentic. The biggest complaint about recognition programs is that they feel contrived and procedural instead of sincere. If the message of appreciation isn’t believed to be genuine, you’re wasting your time.

4. Given in the way that’s meaningful to the recipient. If you try to show appreciation in the way you perceive it, but it isn’t in a way that’s important to the other person, you waste time and energy.

This last point is key and needs a bit more explanation. How can you know how someone else wants to be appreciated? Some volunteers appreciate tangible gifts (a coupon for a cup of coffee or a plaque) and some do not. Some crave public recognition, but others don’t want to go up front to receive a reward. Some volunteers want to celebrate their accomplishments as a group in a social setting, while others do not. According to The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, appreciation is shown by giving affirmation, quality time, acts of service, tangible gifts, and appropriate physical touch.

After a while, you may become very good at reading what type of appreciation the people you work with need, but to start out, ask.

For example, I always set aside time at NAR’s Leadership Summit to get to know my president-elect and talk about goals and roles in the upcoming year. Of course, we go through the President/Chief Staff Executive Checklist but I also learn personal things that give me clues as to how I can show appreciation effectively throughout their term. I express how important it is for the president to also practice appreciation and get to know the other leaders and volunteers.

For a group, I would take my board of directors through a personality assessment exercise at our leadership orientation designed to help them identify their own leadership, learning, communication, and appreciation styles and those of their colleagues. This not only helped them work effectively together but also helped my president and me learn how to better communicate appreciation.

One of my past presidents is a strong example of this concept: Instead of purchasing the same thank-you gift for all members of the executive committee, she visited with each member and learned their passions and listened to their concerns. She then wrote personalized thank-you notes expressing what she had appreciated about each individual throughout her term (words of affirmation). Lastly, she made contributions in their names to their preferred charities (not her preferred charity).

When we take time to invest in others, we raise them, and ourselves, up to a stronger level of performance. A leader who feels authentically appreciated will be more inspired to show up to the board meeting prepared and on time, interact positively with membership and other members of the board, and continue serving the organization.

Additional contributions to this article by Dr. Paul White, a psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant. He is coauthor of The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace and Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment and author of The Vibrant Workplace: Overcoming the Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation.

Guyla Greenly is the former CEO of the Wyoming Association of REALTORS®, with 11 years’ experience in association management. She is currently a writer, speaker, consultant, and certified facilitator of the Appreciation at Work programs, which she has applied to leadership training at REALTOR® associations.

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