The Power of Appreciation

          In our last blog post, we made the case for why optimism is so important in creating a healthy culture. In this post, we will make the case for a second underlying principle of a healthy culture: appreciation.  In our book, Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, we included a quotation from William James, who is often credited with being the father of American psychology.  

“The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Much has been written on the positive psychological and physiological effects of appreciation.  Yet, in some industries, particularly in manufacturing, many executives exhibit the attitude that workers are paid for their work, and that is the extent of the employment relationship. In other words, the transaction is simply work for pay. Appreciation is not part of this formula.

In Don Rust’s first management assignment, he supervised the Traffic Department of General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, plant--the same factory that experienced the famous GM sit-down strike in 1936.  The department was responsible for hauling truckloads of engines from their plant to another GM factory. The management of this plant was not accustomed to showing appreciation toward its workers. Cynicism and distrust permeated the plant. One of the first initiatives Don made as a supervisor was to ask whether he could drive along with one of the plant’s truckers to see first-hand what their job was like. No stranger to driving trucks, Don quickly established rapport with the drivers, listening to their thoughts and concerns about work while on the road with them.

When budgets were being considered for buying new trucks for the plant, Don shared the proposed specifications with his department. Workers were pleased with the configuration of the trucks, but he quickly learned how drivers felt about some features the trucks were lacking. Workers told how excruciatingly hot the cab got in the summer months, often leading to driver drowsiness. They also told of their embarrassment of being constantly teased by truck drivers from other companies for having the cheapest-looking trucks on the road. One feature they requested was air horns. These requests were not luxuries; they were  related to the pride and safety of the drivers’ jobs.

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Appreciating how important these features were to the drivers, Don ordered trucks that included air conditioning and big chrome air horns.  He also had the trucks painted bright red and blue to stand out and make the drivers proud to have the best-looking trucks on the road.

The response was a happy group of drivers. With Don’s blessings, the drivers decided to enter into a national campaign for safe driving. During this campaign, they logged over 10 million miles without a single accident, were chosen as the number one company for their safe driving, and received a certificate recognizing their achievement. This pride in their work and commitment to safety encouraged one employee to write a poem. Here is the last stanza of this poem, written by Cliff Booth, a mechanic in the Traffic Department:

To the old timers, some now out of our ranks,

And to the young upstarts, the Department says, “thanks.”

With teamwork and effort, our engines which roar,

Our traffic will roar easy, ten million miles more.

William James had it right:  appreciation is a powerful human need. When shown, it results in positive outcomes for all involved.  In the case of the Traffic Department, it clearly made a difference.