WHEN AND HOW to show appreciation is an essential skill for successful leadership. Allah’s Messenger said,

He who does not thank people does not thank Allah. (Tirmidhi)

Today’s work environment of downsizing and multitasking has lead to an increasingly impersonal work atmosphere. It has become a challenge and often a last priority on the busy to-do list for a leader to recognize and give approval to the work of his staff. This is however a critical aspect of a leader’s job not only for the success and motivation of his staff but also for his own success as a leader.

What types of rewards are most satisfying, beneficial, and motivating to people? Are financial rewards or bonuses always the best form of appreciation? Although material rewards may seem the best, most research on performance appraisals and compensation reflects that there are many employees who actually prefer recognition and appreciation of their work from their leadership.

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It is extremely important that a leader strive to impart a sense of genuine appreciation for a job well done. Even if there is no specific, identifiable end to a project or a measurable result, the leader should look for other aspects of the work or the worker to appreciate. For instance, he can extend his appreciation for an employee or a team member who is neat in appearance or diligent in performance.

Finding ways to show appreciation is not as easy a task as most new employees might think. For many people the act itself—of thanking someone—is often difficult. The leader may worry about appearing superficial or awkward in the delivery of the compliments. Despite the risks, it is important that a leader develops a sense of appreciation for others and make it a natural working habit as well as an inseparable part of life.

Recognition and approval from superiors and colleagues are major factors in personal motivation and superior job performance. Workers often rate their job satisfaction in part on work environment and relationship with their superiors. Although leaders must be able to function and often motivate themselves without much recognition or approval from others, even the best employee or well-paid team member may find it difficult to exert the effort required to accomplish a task without external recognition.

But how can a leader show appreciation to others? How does that appreciation translate into motivation? When is it the right time to bestow appreciation?

Human beings indeed are social creatures. Appreciation and recognition both verbal and non-verbal are therefore more powerful at times than financial compensation—however important the monetary appreciation is. A leader whose outlook is positive and who realizes the individual worth and dignity of each team member can be a source of reassurance and motivation.

Words of praise carry no material value but their impact can be endless. Such praise need not be planned. It may be better to speak from the heart than to appear as if one is delivering a rehearsed message. An unexpected “Thank you” or “I appreciate your efforts” can be pleasant interruptions in the usual work routine or meeting. Allah’s Messenger said,

A man speaks a good word, not realizing its worth, for which Allah records for him His good pleasure till the day he meets Him. A man also speaks an evil word not realizing its importance for which Allah records for him His displeasure till the day he meets Him. (Tirmidhi)

A successful leader works hard to create an environment of mutual appreciation and recognition by personally greeting each member even at least with a smile. It is also important to develop personal ties between leaders and subordinates.

Prophet Muhammad used to assign personalized names to his Companions like: Abu Bakr the Testifier to the Truth, Umar the Criterion between Good and Bad (AlFaruq), and Ali the Gate to Knowledge, Abu Ubaidah the Trustworthy of the Nation. What is unique about these titles is that they did not convey fame or position as much as they were reflective of the leader’s view of the positive characteristics of the individuals.

As well as spoken praise, written praise can also be a form of appreciation. Thank you notes, emails and letters of commendation can all be used as tools of appreciation. A brief handwritten note on the leader’s personal stationery, not only serves as a constant reminder, even after the moment has passed but can also provide a touch of personal attention that may not have been conveyed verbally.

Never underestimate the power of a simple smile in the midst of a hectic day. A light greeting and a firm handshake is equally powerful.

Showing gratitude is seldom discussed as a motivating factor—receiving only passing attention. In fact, it is quite common to observe increased effort exerted by workers after a motivational talk by the leader.

Increased effort may also be apparent after a break in the working routine for a staff appreciation meeting. A leader who works alongside his team experiencing its challenges and stresses first-hand can also provide motivation through his example and attitude.

Leaders must be sensitive to this link between appreciation and motivation. Every personal interaction with a team member must convey a sense of belonging, togetherness, and recognition of each particular member’s contribution to the overall results.

Personal attention does not have to be time consuming. As mentioned previously, it can be either verbal or non-verbal. The leader may make personal visits to the work site. He may organize an informal get-together and invite the members to share in a meal. Or he may choose to invite them to his home as a refreshing break from the usual work environment. And it definitely does not have to be planned; spontaneous activities can be motivational too.

Another aspect of showing gratitude is timing. When is the right time? Is there a right time? An oversimplified answer would be anytime is the right time. Even if the show of appreciation is past due—certainly better late than never—it is still important. However, for the successful leader the principle should be ‘the sooner the better.’ This principle can be derived from the saying of Allah’s Messenger,

Give the hireling his wages before his sweat dries. (Ibn Majah)

This act places great pressure on the leader to be aware of what is happening in his organization, to be able to exercise proper judgment when assessing situations, and to be aware of the impact of a well-timed compliment.

There may be times when a team member is seeking financial compensation or is expecting a bonus or reward. The leader should exercise judgment so that he or she does not trivialize the situation by using a verbal or non-financial gesture of appreciation alone.

At other times, a team member’s outstanding performance may have put him or her at odds with the rest of the team. Unless done wisely and as a way to promote motivation and good will within the entire team, a public show of appreciation for that individual member could be further detrimental to the team. Or, it could be a motivating factor as it awakens the competitive spirit in the other team members.

Prophet Muhammad held up a Companion’s hand, noting the dry, cracked skin that was a result of hard labor. He shared his appreciation publicly, saying,

This was the type of hand that Allah and he loved.

The leader of any organization, large or small, is the one who sets the tone for the work environment. The attitudes and actions of the leader will contribute to the success of the organization. The leader is a source of recognition, approval, and motivation for the team.

While no member should think that the leader has a bag of compliments from which he recycles the same gestures over and over again, all employees should feel that they know what to expect from their leader. An effective leader should be consistent in his style of leadership so that his employees feel secure while being able to incorporate the element of surprise and a sense of humor into the work environment.

When and how to show appreciation is an important leadership skill that needs be developed and practiced. All team members deserve to be appreciated. It is their right. It gears them up to perform their best.

Everyone who is in a position of leadership has a duty to understand the needs of each employee and to be wise and sincere in meting out praise and compliments. Without this ability neither the leader nor the organization will succeed.

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