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12 May 2022
by Gethin Nadin

How the power of positive psychology can be used to reduce stress and burnout

A round of applause in the office has a feel good factor that just can't be beaten – if it's done for the right thing

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‘Lack of appreciation’ if often cited as a reason for leaving a job. Lack of recognition is the top predictor of burnout and, conversely, receiving recognition is in the top three predictors of engagement, according to Forrester Analytics Global Business Technographics Workforce Benchmark Survey, 2019.

Not being recognised for hard work can cause motivation and engagement to plummet, often leading to stress and an irreconcilable disconnect between employer and employee. A lack of recognition is also a predictor of higher levels of loneliness.

Effective workplace recognition has never been so important. Organisations need to let their people know that they see the extraordinary lengths they are going to and are grateful for those efforts.

Applying behavioural psychology to your recognition programme

Positive organisational behaviour focuses on building positive qualities or traits as opposed to focusing on trying to ‘fix’ people. To build a culture of appreciation, encouraging company-wide growth mindsets, as opposed to fixed mindsets, is a good place to start.

Much research has been done into how different types of praise can affect performance and motivation. While any sort of acknowledgement is far better than none at all, when it comes to encouraging development and aligning to values, there’s certainly a preferred approach to recognition.

Encourage the right mindset

Specific, effort (or process)-based praise encourages a growth mindset, which ultimately leads people to push themselves and be more optimistic about their own capabilities. If we are told – particularly at a young age - “you did that really well,” or, “you worked hard on this project,” it encourages us to believe that it is our efforts that help us to achieve our goals, which is something we have more control over, and something that can be influenced by incentives.

Ability-based praise such as “you’re good at that,” or “you’re clever,” encourages a fixed mindset. While nice to hear in the moment, it can encourage us to think of our abilities as finite, and therefore unaffected by our efforts. This ultimately goes against the attitudes that most employers wish to encourage among their people. It demotivates us when faced with a challenge and reduces the incentive of a reward, as our mindset is – as described in the ‘wanting’ section – already focused on the effort (which we believe is beyond our capabilities) rather than the reward according to Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

A growth mindset adjusts better to business development

Essentially, recognition of effort is more effective in further motivating humans than recognition of ability. In an agile, dynamic organisation, employees with this effort-based, flexible view of their own talents will likely be able to adapt better to change than those with a fixed mindset. It’s important to tie your company values into your recognition and as it’s likely that your organisation’s values call for innovation and optimism, you’ll most likely find these traits in employees who have a growth mindset.

Humans need approximately three positive experiences for every negative one to thrive and there is evidence that our brains react to praise in a similar way to receiving a physical reward. In one study, participants’ brains were scanned using MRI while being offered various stimuli. Researchers discovered that receiving compliments led to similar activation in reward areas of the brain, such as the striatum, as receiving monetary gifts.

This suggests not only that social and monetary rewards are processed in a similar manner, but also that social rewards can feel just as good as monetary rewards.

Who we need recognition from

Recognition needs to come from a range of sources. In the workplace, the reward of being paid is enough to motivate us to simply ‘do our jobs’. But to truly thrive, we need a mixture of praise from our ‘superiors’ – or those that we view as of higher status in terms of social standing, family hierarchy or workplace seniority – and our peers.

Peer-to-peer praise offers the positive outcomes of motivation, ‘liking’, and engagement, but the presence of peer-to-peer praise itself suggests an environment of openness and psychological safety. If we feel empowered to recognise our peers and to celebrate their successes, then we are clearly operating in a culture that encourages collaboration and positive relationships.

Peer-to-peer recognition

As workforces become more remote, keeping a community together can be a challenge. To support this, there’s strong evidence that encouraging more thanks promotes teamwork. So, peer-to-peer recognition where employees are giving and receiving thanks has the potential to promise some big rewards.

Even watching someone being thanked makes you feel good. In 2013, Mendoza and Schultz reviewed a series of research pieces using functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI). They were interested in the effects on the brain of being thanked in social situations. What they found was that the reward centre in the brain concerned with being thanked lights up when they just observing someone else being thanked. It turns out that witnessing this appreciation has a positive effect and a similar reaction to the person who is thanked themselves.

Helping colleagues thank each other could mean doubling the chance of them helping each other. Make these thanks visible to all employees and the positive effects will be much wider. Add recognition that is delivered instantly and consistently, and you’ll benefit from established changes in habits and behaviours that pivot around your organisational goals.

In partnership with Benefex

The home of award-winning employee benefits, reward, recognition, & communications.

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