Four easy steps to winning over your personnel

or: “He at least could have thanked me!”

Dear Readers,

Today I’d like to talk to you about a subject that’s dear to my heart. Time and time again I’m struck by how easy it is for me, in my capacity as a business coach, to talk to purportedly “difficult” employees, obtain honest and useful information from them, and persuade them to abide by the relevant rules. So what’s so “difficult” about these employees? Or, put another way: What’s the best way go about establishing productive communication with such individuals?

Let’s start with a few basic rules:

  1. Be real (authenticity is key).
  2. Instead of judging the other person, accept them as they are, unconditionally. People sense when they’re being judged – which causes them to clam up.
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes (empathy is key).

These are the main components of Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach to therapy – and they work amazingly well.

Over the years I’ve discovered two other basic principles that have helped me to form more constructive and fulfilling relationships in my career and personal life:

Appreciativeness and mindfulness.

This is a blog entry about people feeling (or not feeling) appreciated. For I consider showing appreciation to be the key that unlocks the hearts of the people we interact with and that enables us to engage with them as equal partners.

eBook download – 7,90€

Ich wähle in diesen eBook im weiteren Verlauf bewusst die männlichen Wortendungen, obwohl ich das unglücklich finde, weil ich die Leserinnen und die weiblichen Akteure, die in diesem Beitrag auftreten, sehr schätze! Aber alles andere führt zu Umständlichkeiten, sorry.

The appreciation shower

Although Werner is close to retirement age, he’s attending a workshop called “Successful communication and teamwork.” He stands in the middle of the room, in a circle consisting of five coworkers (and workshop attendees) from his company. The assigned task is clearly defined, as follows: “Tell Werner which behaviors you’ve observed in him that you’ve appreciated. What has he said or done that has promoted your sense of well-being, or your learning, in this workshop, or that has been a source of positive support for you in any other work situations involving you and Werner?”

The situation is kind of awkward at first. Werner feels somewhat uneasy because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Plus the other participants aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to say. The fact is that people aren’t very accustomed to telling each other what they like about each other and how they act. “Not being yelled at is sufficient praise!” You’d be surprised at how strongly people believe this statement to be true.

But then one of the participants speaks up. “Well, Werner, we’ve know each other for many years. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for being so available whenever I’ve had a problem using these new project management tools. Your door has always been open and you’ve always taken time to explain everything to me in a calm way, until I’ve genuinely understood what was going on. I’m eternally grateful to you for this, because had it not been for your support I would have really been stuck or would have needed to exert a lot more effort to understand what was going on. So thanks very much for that.”

Werner is visibly moved to learn that something that for him went without saying was seen by someone else as being so positive and was so appreciated by him. But he needn’t say anything. All he needs to do is listen, enjoy the moment, and internalize a message that promotes his inner harmony. Then a second participant speaks up, and then a third – until finally all of the participants have expressed their appreciation for Werner, concerning either how he’s acted during the workshop, or other work situations that they’ve been in with him. And then something happens that I’ll ever forget.

Suddenly Werner raises his arms, does a little pirouette, and exclaims: “I’m appreciated. I’m appreciated. I’ve been waiting to hear this for 40 years.”


Good employees leave because they’re not appreciated

For Werner’s employer and coworkers – as well as for the company’s customers – it’s lucky that Werner is so tenacious, resilient and patient. For the fact is that his company regards him as a valued employee. The vast majority of good employees who resign from companies that would rather they stayed do so because their personal contribution to the organization is insufficiently recognized and appreciated. In the US, not being sufficiently appreciated is the leading reason why employees quit; whereas in Germany, the leading reason is the latter in conjunction with a lack of opportunities for career advancement.

So where are we going wrong? We take good job performance for granted. Which means that there’s no compelling reason to make a big deal out of an employee doing their job well, for after all, that’s what they’re being paid for. But our behavior is identical to that of the farmer in a popular German TV series, who says the following to this betrothed on their wedding day: “I love you, babe. And if that changes at any time over the next 50 years, I’ll let you know.”

Let’s face it: we all want to be seen in a positive light, whether we admit it or not. If this were not the case, the strong positive reaction we all have when someone says they appreciate us wouldn’t make sense. But of course, we should only give our employees positive feedback about things that are truly positive about them. We can show this appreciation, verbally, through body language or other behaviors.

Attitude counts more than method

Your attitude toward what you say is far more important than what you actually say. What’s the first thing you think of when you reflect on what your coworkers or boss have done for you recently that you found helpful? I’ve found that it often takes people quite a while to come up with an answer to this question, for the simple reason that most of us take far more notice when a person does something that we dislike. Why is this is the case?

Well first of all, it’s got something to do with our brains. From an evolutionary standpoint, a person’s chances of survival have always been considerably greater if they focus more on threats than on opportunities. Because otherwise, if, say, a close friend takes leave of you outside a restaurant and, upon crossing the street, fails to look both ways and gets hit by a bus – well that might be the last time you ever lay eyes on that friend.

The other key factor that comes into play has to do with our inner attitude. You can’t show appreciation if you’re not displaying mindfulness.

You need to consciously focus your attention on the positive, in order to clearly perceive it. Take vacations for example. When we’re on vacation, we tend to be far more attentive to beautiful buildings, landscapes and the like than we are when we’re driving down the highway on the way to an important meeting. This is because, when you’re on vacation, you take the time to appreciate nature for the simple reason that doing so is sufficiently important to you in that particular situation.

What we happen to perceive at any given moment, what attracts and holds our attention, is governed by a completely subjective process. And that is exactly the message that your coworkers, colleagues, friends, associates and loved ones might be receiving subliminally: they may sense that they’re not important enough to you, their friend, loved one, boss, coworker, or colleague.

So now the question arises: how exactly does showing your appreciation for someone work?

Showing appreciation as an inner attitude consists of two aspects. Everything that exists has an inherent value, regardless of how it affects us or what our attitude toward it is. Of the around seven billion people on the planet, only a minute fraction of the truly matters to me. So does that mean that the other nearly seven billion don’t matter at all, are of no consequence whatsoever? Of course not. For all of them have people in their lives whom they value and who are as important to them as your own family is to you.

The second aspect relates to how “valuable” you feel a person is. Whenever someone does something that helps me out and that meets an important need of mine, I deem that action to be “valuable.” Egocentric though it may sound, the extent to which someone’s behavior is valuable to me is reflected by the extent to which my own needs are met by the other person’s actions. In such situations, it makes no difference whether the other person intended to do something that benefited me. All that counts is the end result: they did me some good, in one way or another.

And lest the altruists among you are feeling antsy at this point, let me add: virtually all of the human needs that I know of are not egocentric needs but social ones, such as understanding, acceptance, respect, support and recognition. And just as it “takes two to tango,” it also, and always, takes two (or more) people in order for a given need to be fulfilled. You need one person who understands and another who’s understood; one who accepts and another who’s accepted; and so on.

Every time a need that’s important to me is fulfilled, positive feelings are triggered in me. Feelings and emotions can be regarded as indicators of the extent to which key needs are being fulfilled, or are being left unfulfilled. In other words, feelings and emotions function as a kind of “key indicator” of our inner state at any give time.

Thus it’s only natural to do the following in an appreciative fashion and from a place of appreciativeness:

  1. Describe what the other person has contributed (as determined by observing the person);
  2. Indicate which of your needs the person has helped to fulfill (fulfilled needs, personal benefits); and
  3. Describe the positive feelings the above has triggered in you (positive feelings).
  4. You cap off this “shower” of appreciation by expressing your gratitude. (Thanks)

The difference between praise, and showing appreciation

And there you have the exact difference between praise, and showing appreciation. The following three things bother me about praise:

  1. It’s often very general.
  2.  You don’t really know why you’re being praised.
  3. Giving praise inflates the ego of the recipient of the praise.


An example of how praise works

One day while standing at the water cooler, Susie’s boss, Mike, says to her: “I’m really pleased at how you’re bringing this new project to fruition. Terrific stuff. Please do keep up the good work.” Now, if you were Susie, what exactly would you now know about what you’d done for Mike that was so praiseworthy? Not a whole lot, it seems to me. And so Susie could try to guess what Mike had actually meant. Perhaps he was referring to the skill she’d shown in drawing up the project’s RFP. So Susie could, for example respond to Mike’s kudos as follows:

“Hey Mike, I really do appreciate your positive feedback. But what exactly did you mean by bringing the project to fruition?” Asking this question would enable Susie to find out exactly what, in her boss’s eyes, her positive contribution had been.

But do you always react this way in your daily work? Do your employees react this way? Sometimes people simply don’t pursue the matter, out of a fear of appearing ungrateful, or to avoid discovering that they didn’t actually contribute all that much to a positive outcome. All this by way of explaining what bothers me about praise. It’s often too general to be readily understandable.


What does he want from me?

Now let’s move on to the second problem with praise – which is that you never really know why you’re being praised.

If Susie and her boss have a good working relationship, how will she react to her boss’s explanation of the reasons for his positive feedback? I imagine she’d be pleased to find out what Mike was referring to and what he liked about her job performance. So, seen from this perspective, his praise will surely have a positive effect, in that it will constitute positive reinforcement, i.e. it will encourage Susie to keep doing the positive thing she’s already doing. But this positive reinforcement would also be non-specific, because there’s no guarantee that the behavior Susie inferred Mike was referring to might be reinforced, rather than the behavior Mike was actually referring to. I know a lot of employees who’d be thrilled to receive this kind of positive feedback, and who would feel, “At least I’m doing something right.”

Now let’s look at the putative other side of the coin of the Susie-Mike working relationship, i.e. let’s imagine for a moment that it’s not all that good. So in that scenario, how would she react to her boss’s positive feedback? And what effect would it have on her? I imagine she might reason as follows: “He’s usually not this nice to me, so I wonder what he wants from me? Maybe he wants me to do more overtime? Or is he maybe hitting on me? Or perhaps he’s feeling guilty about something or other – but what?” What effect will Mike’s praise have if Susie’s distrust of her boss and her feeling that he’s not being honest with her prompt her to draw negative conclusions? It’s not hard to imagine that her distrust of him and/or sense that he’s being dishonest will reinforce both these impressions.

And that’s exactly what bothers me about praise. The kudos recipient simply has no way of knowing what prompted it in the first place. In the best case scenario, the recipient of the praise will conclude that it’s been given for positive reasons, or in the reverse case, will conclude the opposite. The fact that the person giving the positive feedback fails to explain his reasons for doing so will tend to cause the recipient of the praise to reach their own conclusions in this regard. So wouldn’t it be better if the person delivering the praise also explained what prompted them to do so, as follows: I’m really pleased (positive feeling) because you did something (observation) that helped me out (fulfilled need).


The role of ego

Now on to point 3: Giving praise inflates the ego of its recipient. For when all’s said and done, positive feedback is flattering. Plus it constitutes a general statement concerning the other person that cannot be proven or verified, e.g. “I can always count on you!” So does that mean that the recipient of this praise is really there for those who need her 24/7? Has the praise deliverer checked this out with the praise recipient’s spouse or partner? Such praise constitutes a blanket statement that the praise recipient may well take to mean that she is simply awesome. And so if you give a member of your team this kind of “blanket” positive feedback, how is she going to act the following day? How do you go about gently removing the person from the pedestal you’ve put them on? That could be highly problematic.

And here’s another thing about praise. One day I said to my daughter, “You did an awesome job on that photo documentation.” Her response was: “Well that’s a shame, because from now on I’ll have to be that awesome all the time.” The problem with praise is that there’s unavoidably a subtext that creates a sense of obligation on the part of the praise recipient – who, out of fear of losing the positive regard that the praise deliverer has conferred upon her, is obligated to henceforth keep exhibiting the same behavior that prompted the kudos in the first place.

Unlike praise, showing appreciation refers not to one or more character traits, but rather to a specific behavior that was displayed in a specific situation. Showing appreciation is a way of expressing gratitude for something that was given, rather than an overly positive appraisal of the giver’s personality.

How to practice and use shows of appreciation

Employees who feel appreciated are more productive, more loyal and more committed – and fall ill less often and have fewer work accidents.

This isn’t just my personal opinion: it’s a scientifically proven fact. Showing appreciation is the key to winning the hearts and minds of your employees. We have a saying in Germany that’s very apt here: People come to work for a company, but leave it because of their hierarchical superiors.

How to use shows of appreciation to win the hearts and minds of your team

Here are two things you can work on in this regard:

  1. Work on making shows of appreciation for your team members an integral part of your behavior, with them, and in life in general.
  2. Use the four steps to shows of appreciation in your communication


How to make shows of appreciation a basic part of your behavior

To make shows of appreciation a basic part of your behavior, all you need to do is make your team members aware, from time to time, of a valuable accomplishment on their part, or of how they’ve helped you out. And in so doing, make it clear that you don’t take these kinds of positive contributions to your organization for granted. Everyone wants their personnel to be act in a friendly, congenial and open manner on the job; but I’ve never seen this stipulated in a work contract.

You’ll receive countless gifts every day

Consider the following: Over the past week, what have you done for other people that you weren’t obligated or paid to do? People have a basic need to help other people. In other words, we all have the desire to soothe the pain and suffering of our friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers, and to promote their happiness. And we have this desire despite not being social workers, clergymen, or nurses.

Why is this the case? Because that’s human nature! In other words, it’s in our nature to act in a constructive fashion towards our fellow human beings. In fact, our brains have developed special nerve cells known as mirroring neurons that enable us to realize how others are feeling and to actively participate in the trajectory of their lives, from an emotional standpoint at a minimum.

Try this: for a period of two to four weeks, make a point of letting people know about their positive accomplishments – regardless of whether they were intentional. In so doing, ask yourself this question: During the period in question, which of your own needs were met by which behavior on the part of which other person? Doing this will probably take some practice, because oftentimes we’re not very aware of our own needs. In other words, you’ll need to learn to develop an awareness of (a) your own needs; and (b) the extent to which they’re being met. This really is the only way I know of to find out when your team members have done something that works to your advantage.

Another useful exercise is to every so often consider what exactly makes you happy that isn’t an aspect of your life that you take for granted. I’m thinking of elements such as nature, the air you breathe, sunshine and other people’s friendliness and helpfulness. Things that we’re not formally entitled to, that we haven’t earned, but that enrich our lives.

Die 4 Schritte der Wertschätzung praktizieren

The four steps to practicing shows of appreciation

  1. Describing what the other person has contributed (as determined by observing the person);
  2. Indicating which of your needs the person has helped to fulfill (fulfilled needs, personal benefits); and
  3. Indicating which positive feelings the above has triggered in you (positive feelings)
  4. You cap off this “shower” of appreciation by expressing your gratitude. (Thanks)

Step 1: Observation

I recommend that you first do a kind of dry run by writing down on a piece of paper the name of an employee or someone else, and what this person has done or accomplished, and which need of yours this deed or accomplishment has fulfilled.

The “what” part is what you’ve observed. “I’ve observed that you…” Observation comprises everything that you can perceive with your senses, i.e. everything that you’ve seen, heard or felt.

In doing this “dry run,” try to be as specific as possible, along these lines: “On Monday you took out the garbage without being asked; or “Yesterday you emailed me a report before the deadline.”

Step 2: Positive feelings

It’s crucial that you also learn how to perceive and communicate exactly which positive feelings have been triggered in you. When you convey your observations, you’re addressing your interlocutor’s mind (cognition); whereas when you express your feelings, you’re addressing your interlocutor at an emotional, gut level. Which is exactly what you want to do, because this will dramatically heighten the impact of your shows of appreciation.

Feelings are always bound up with empathy for the other person’s motivations and circumstances. Even if someone helps you out unintentionally, at the gut level they’ll sense that they’ve done you some good and will be happy about it. Or are you a person who feels morose if your partner is pleased at a pleasant surprise that you’ve devised for her?

Step 3: Fulfilled needs, personal benefits

Telling someone exactly which need of yours they’ve fulfilled helps them to understand why you’re giving them positive feedback. Given that we all have similar basic needs, the other person will intuit that your praise is coming from a place of honesty – provided that you make clear to them exactly how their action relates to your needs. This will make your shows of appreciation more believable, which in turn will enhance their impact even more.

You can carry out the four steps in any order – because as the use cases that follow show, any sequence is feasible. It’s also perfectly okay to show appreciation in a manner that factors in what the other person has the capacity to take in and/or accept. People with a negative self image have difficulty accepting shows of appreciation because their own self esteem is low.

Your show of appreciation might take the other person by surprise, because they’ve never seen you give positive feedback before. And this of course might arouse distrust or even rejection. Don’t be put off by this. With time, you’ll shape the four steps to shows of appreciation to your own communication style. Which means you might want to omit one or more steps, or change the wording I’ve suggested here – so as to ensure that your interlocutor doesn’t see what you’re trying to do. In other words, the whole “event” should come across as being a natural part of a natural conversation, not as something you’re practicing or have learned to do in a workshop.

As noted, your attitude toward what you’re saying and doing in connection with the four steps to shows of appreciation is far more important than finding the “right” method or technique. Mindset trumps method! Which also means that in many cases you don’t really need to say very much; because sometimes just a look will suffice – or a gesture such as patting the person on the shoulder. That said, bear in mind that words can be very powerful – so be sure that what you say comes from a place of honesty and authenticity.

Use cases for shows of appreciation

Use case 1

“First of all, I’m so pleased that you were able to make time in your busy schedule to attend this meeting. It’s very helpful to me that all of us are in attendance today, because this will enable me to convey the requisite information to all concerned in a timely manner. This will help avoid any possible misunderstandings or miscommunication and will enable us to respond nimbly to the new situation that we’re now facing. So thanks very much for being here today.”

Can you discern the four steps here? To find out, underline them (the solution is just below).

The four steps in the passage above:

“First of all, I’m so pleased (positive feeling) that you were able to make time in your busy schedule to attend this meeting (observation). It’s very helpful to me (general need fulfilled, i.e. support provided) that all of us are in attendance today, because this will enable me to convey the requisite information to all concerned in a timely manner. This will help avoid any possible misunderstandings or miscommunication and will enable us to respond nimbly to the new situation that we’re now facing (fulfilled need/personal benefit, specific). So thanks (thanks) very much for being here today.”

Use case 2:

“Thanks so much for bringing me my notebook.
 This will save me the trouble of going downstairs to get it (smile).”

Can you discern the four steps here? To find out, underline them (the solution is just below).

The four steps in the passage above:

Thanks (thanks) so much for bringing me my notebook (observation).
 This will save me the trouble of going downstairs to get it (fulfilled need, personal benefit = e.g. relaxation, recreation, saving time. The need isn’t so clearly visible in this case, but sometimes that doesn’t really matter). The smile conveys a positive feeling non-verbally, but visibly.

Use case 3:

“You got everything done super competently and on schedule and also generated a spreadsheet showing the results. All this exceeded my expectations. I’m happy about this because it shows me that I can rely on you, and I feel that reliability is a very important character trait. So thanks a million.”

Can you discern the four steps here? To find out, underline them (the solution is just below).

The four steps in the passage above:

“You got everything done super competently and on schedule and also generated a spreadsheet showing the results (observation). All this exceeded my expectations (kudos). I’m happy about this because it shows me that I can rely on you (fulfilled need, personal benefit) and I feel that reliability is a very important character trait. Thanks a million. (Thanks)

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I look forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,

Michael Ohlmer