When was the last time your boss told you “good job” and really meant it?
If you’re like many American workers, your answer is probably “not recently.” According to a Gallup survey of more than 15,000 Americans workers, just 32% of people felt engaged in their jobs at the end of 2022, and the number of workers who reported being actively disengaged climbed during the pandemic. Most importantly, just 30% of workers surveyed by Gallup said they had “received recognition or praise for doing good work” over the past week. Another survey by the HR software company Workhuman found that more than half of the workers they spoke to didn’t feel valued by their employer. And this epidemic of neglect is driving employees away. A 2021 study by the global management-consulting firm McKinsey found that the top-two reasons people quit their jobs are because they don’t feel valued by their company or their manager.
Staff turnover hit an all-time high in 2022, with over 50.5 million people quitting their jobs. People have offered a wide variety of explanations for this Great Resignation — whether it’s companies adopting remote or hybrid work or a generational shift in attitudes about work — but all of them make it clear that the pandemic was a catalyst that brought to the fore a long-term, underlying problem in the workplace: People aren’t happy.
While pay and working conditions go a long way in making people feel more favorably about their jobs, evidence is mounting that job satisfaction really comes down to a more basic human need. A 2023 report by Achievers Workforce Institute found that a staggering 79% of employees would rather stay in a job where they feel valued, even if it meant making less money. People want to feel appreciated for the work they do — telling your employee a simple “well done” might be the difference between whether they stay or go.
The dopamine hit
When a person receives praise or a compliment, it starts a chemical chain reaction. The brain’s hypothalamus is triggered and begins to produce dopamine, the same chemical that is released when a person exercises or laughs. Dopamine makes us feel satisfied and motivated. And when employees feel happy and rewarded by their jobs, they are also more productive. A six-month study of British Telecom’s call-center staff by the Centre for Economic Performance found a direct link between employee happiness and productivity.
“An awful lot of this comes down to very basic psychology: How do people feel safe, as opposed to threatened?” Tera Allas, the director of research and economics in the McKinsey UK and Ireland office, told me. “We know that if you feel threatened, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, and you can’t be creative, you can’t serve your customers very well, you can’t problem solve as effectively. It’s really bad for your health, obviously, but even from a purely business perspective, organizations should realize that if their employees are constantly in a state of fear, or in a state of stress, they’re going to produce a worse outcome.”
52% of people said a top reason they quit their job was because they didn’t feel valued by their managers
And employees who feel unappreciated or stressed are also more likely to find a new job. According to the AWI survey, employees who don’t feel that they’re recognized for their work are 39% more likely to say they will job hunt. The McKinsey study found that while employers assumed pay, work-life balance, and well-being were the main motivators for people leaving their jobs, employees reported that feeling valued and a sense of belonging at work actually trumped the other factors. Fifty-four percent of respondents said that not feeling valued by their organization was one of their top-three factors for leaving, 52% said it came down to not feeling valued by their managers, and 51% said a top factor was not feeling like they belonged. These feelings were particularly strong among non-white workers.
While praise has also been critical to creating a good employee experience, the need for managers to tell workers “good job” became more important during the pandemic. Being valued is “one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of being a human,” Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, the chief workforce scientist at Achievers Workforce Institute, told me. Once people were removed from their regular work routines and isolated at home, Baumgartner said, they began questioning what was important to them, and many began to reframe how they thought about their job. The authors of the McKinsey study wrote that the pandemic left employees “craving investment in the human aspects of work.”
As employers grapple with the post-pandemic needs of their workforce, it can be easy for them to slip into thinking that their staff is only motivated by higher salaries or financial benefits. And while fair pay is certainly an important issue and can make workers feel more valued, it isn’t the only part of the equation. “We need to expand how we think about value,” Baumgartner said. Instead of just thinking about someone in terms of their monetary value, she said that “being valued can be understood in terms of who you are, and the impact you have on others.”
Tera Allas said there are two key reasons employers find it hard to grapple with the importance of valuing their employees: “If you’re a boss, you don’t really see and feel what it’s like to be in the front line.” If managers don’t fully understand the effort or work required to produce a certain outcome, it can be hard for them to grasp what is worthy of praise. This gap in understanding often results in a lack of empathy from managers.. Allas said that in addition to not knowing what to praise, managers also struggle with how to properly value employees. “It’s much harder to do something about the problem of staff not feeling valued than if you think the problem is pay or terms and conditions,” she told me. Changing a policy or giving someone a pay raise is a quicker and simpler fix than changing your entire work culture to ensure people feel respected — but if companies want to keep their workers around, the change is necessary.
How to really mean it when you give an employee praise
For employees to really feel valued at work, it’s important that they are recognized on a regular basis. “We know that at a minimum, an employee should be receiving that kind of recognition and appreciation from their manager at least once a month,” Baumgartner said. “Ideally, even more often — as long as it’s really authentic and meaningful, more is better when it comes to recognition.” She also pointed out that small gestures of recognition on a frequent basis can have an outsized impact. Even a small thanks or a casual “well done” can greatly improve an employee’s overall experience.
While a simple acknowledgement of good work can be a powerful tool, Baumgartner told me that a simple “thank you” isn’t sufficient to truly appreciate employees’ work. “When we talk about recognition, we’re really clear that it has to feel meaningful, it has to feel personal, and it has to reflect the impact that you have,” she told me. “There is no price tag we can put on the feeling that gives us as humans.”
In particular, the appreciation people receive needs to feel authentic, but in a survey of over 36,000 employees by the workplace software company O.C. Tanner, 43% of respondents felt that the recognition they receive at work feels more like an empty gesture than meaningful feedback. The report emphasized that box-ticking approaches to offering praise is detrimental to employees’ sense of belonging. And for it to truly work, positive feedback must be embedded in a company’s culture.
As long as it’s really authentic and meaningful, more is better when it comes to recognition
“For recognition to come across as genuine and meaningful, it can’t be an afterthought but must be given with intent, with the recognition giver shining a light on the individual’s achievements,” Robert Ordever, O.C. Tanner’s European managing director, told Fortune. “Giving appreciation publicly in front of leaders and peers also elevates the moment, making it truly memorable.”
Mindy Shoss, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, told me that sometimes the small things can make a big difference. “I’ve seen leaders at companies even giving a handwritten note to someone saying, Thank you, I saw you went above and beyond. And that made a difference,” she said.
Shoss said that a critical part of a manager’s job is “to keep the organization healthy, which means paying attention to the signs of ‘ill health’ in relationships or in people’s feelings.” Other positive-reinforcement techniques could include employee-of-the-month programs, training and skills workshops, regular bottom-up and top-down feedback processes, and transparent town hall meetings.
Peer-to-peer recognition is also an important way employees can feel valued. A report from “The Spanish Journal of Psychology” of over 1,800 employees found that peer-to-peer recognition had twice as much impact on well-being than recognition from managers. With more companies operating remotely or in a hybrid setup, it may be harder for employees to see what their coworkers are doing and acknowledge their accomplishments. If managers encourage staff to commend each other, it can help fill that gap.
Brian Kropp, the group vice president of the HR firm Gartner, wrote in an article for the Society for Human Resource Management that the less time between an employee doing something and them earning recognition for it, the better. Research shows that positive reinforcement has a greater impact in real time.
In a fast-moving market, companies must also communicate their values and culture to would-be employees. “There’s research that people start looking for signals of whether this is going to be a good place to work from the moment they apply for a job, at the interview, and during the onboarding,” Shoss said. Making sure this is clear from the outset can help attract the best talent.
Creating a sense of belonging in the workplace is not a simple task, but one that, if done well, goes a long way to increase employee well-being and happiness, improve engagement and productivity, and prevent people from wanting to leave. Working out the best methods and practices for doing this in your office might be exploratory, slow work, but it doesn’t need to be hard. All the evidence shows that putting time into thinking about easy and low-effort ways to incorporate praise and staff recognition is well worth it. After all, telling an employee “well done” is itself a job well done.
Molly Lipson is a freelance writer and an organizer from the UK.