A few years ago, I worked for Club Med in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It sounded like the dream job: Staff all live on site, so it had a summer camp-like atmosphere, and who could beat fun under the Caribbean sun?
There was just one problem: The work culture was atrocious.
First, they wanted employees to work all day and then entertain guests all night--we were expected to stay out until at least midnight. One night, after working since 8 a.m., I went back to my room at 9 p.m. Not 10 minutes later, I got a knock on my door. My manager stood there, annoyed: "What are you doing? You're supposed to be on the dance floor."
The second and more deadly thing was that they had a culture of criticizing employees, not appreciating them. Meetings turned into lists of what we did wrong or what they wanted more of, not about what we were succeeding at.
Unsurprisingly, this all led to an absurdly high turnover rate. They fired people right and left (also great for morale), and lots of people quit.
Eventually, I myself was fired. My overwhelming feeling? Relief. It was quick, too, since they have a policy of getting ex-employees off island within 24 hours (because management treats them so poorly they tend to share their unhappiness with guests).
Now let me contrast this with my experience at the best company (not startup) for which I've ever worked:
If you've ever been to Trader Joe's, you've probably noticed that their employees seem exceptionally cheerful. They tend to be funny. They're happy to help you find you what you need. They're comfortable in their positions.
This is not an accident.
It's because Trader Joe's has established a culture of appreciation.
I worked for the Trader Joe's in Union Square in New York City. The heart and soul of the place (for employees) was the break room. It was where you congregated, ate meals, chatted with co-workers, and took a load off.
The first thing you saw on the wall on the way to the break room was a Drops of Appreciation board. It had teardrop-shaped notes ("drops") you could write and tack up.
There were things like:
- "To Darius--for filling in for me in the cheese section this week. Will you brie mine?"
- "To Marcia for teaching me how to unload pallets like a boss...you made my night shift less stressful and way more fun."
- "Big thanks to Janelle for covering me yesterday so I could see my family. Meant a lot."
The next board was for employees to share events. Because it was NYC, over half of us (maybe more) were aspiring performers. We could tack up announcements for our plays, concerts, comedy shows, events, even birthday parties. It helped us connect with one another as human beings, and showed that the company appreciated us as people, not just as workers.
According to neuroscience, gratitude releases dopamine in the brain. Both practicing and receiving appreciation relaxes your body and puts you in a good mental space. This is critical to know if you want to bring out the best in your team--people who feel appreciated are most likely to do their best work, to innovate, to create, and to be productive.
It's worth noting, too, that this culture at Trader Joe's wasn't top down. Yes, managers sometimes left (or received) drops of appreciation. But the culture was one of general appreciation--employees appreciating one another as well as management. It was lateral, not vertical.
To be truly extraordinary, companies must move beyond an "employee of the month" mentality and understand that it's not about one-time recognition sometimes--it's about quality appreciation frequently. It's about ensuring your people feel seen, known, and valued on a regular basis.
Club Med had no structure for appreciation. Its people tended to be sleep-deprived, anxious, resentful, and short-term.
Trader Joe's had a well-established structure for appreciation. Its people tended to be funny, fun, relaxed, and longer-term.
Here's one simple way you can start to establish a culture of appreciation:
At the beginning or end of every meeting, do kudos. Go around the table and have each person give one simple, specific shout-out to another person for some way they helped them over the past day or week. These can be really quick:
- "Thanks for refilling the paper tray.... I know you know I hate doing that, and it was really cool of you."
- "Thanks for walking me through that Excel doc. I was dreading it but you helped make it easy. I learned a lot."
- "Thanks for going over the deck with me for our client meeting yesterday. I felt more relaxed and confident after we talked through it."
Don't worry if it feels cheesy at first. It's worth it in the end.
"The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated." --William James