Positive reinforcement

The recent season of “American Idol” included a significant shift in the approach of the judges. Absent was the caustic criticism of past seasons. The strongest message was affirming and appreciative rather than critical and demeaning. Did the change in the judges’ behavior impact the performance of the contestants from week to week? There is growing evidence that in fact, it may have.


What difference does it make to you when someone expresses appreciation for your work? What difference does it make when you express appreciation to another? Are you aware of a shift in energy? If so, how?

Recently, a colleague and I facilitated a retreat with a leadership team we have had the privilege of working with for a number of months. As the morning evolved we divided the group into two smaller groups and asked them to take some time to give voice to what it was they each appreciated about the contributions of their colleagues within their small groups. When we re-convened, they were visibly different…lighter, more engaged. It became apparent that the experience of both giving and receiving appreciation impacted each of them, and it made a difference in our conversation for the rest of the day.

At the end of the retreat, we invited closing comments. Each leader acknowledged that the appreciation activity set the stage for day-long productive conversations. It raised questions for them and for us about the power of appreciation and the importance of creating opportunities for expressing appreciation within the workplace.

Similarly, I worked with two executives from another organization just a few days ago in a team coaching session. These leaders have struggled in the past, with a level of mistrust and perhaps some level of competition. In the coaching session, they recognized the ways they were expressing appreciation for one another. I invited them to consider what difference that behavior was making in strengthening their relationship. They each acknowledged that by giving and receiving authentic expressions of appreciation, they felt better in the relationship. One leader acknowledged that he now feels safe, trusting that he can risk vulnerability without criticism.

Curious about the transformation that we are seeing in our clients as they intentionally give voice to what they appreciate in one another, we were interested in exploring what might be going on physiologically in the experience of giving and receiving appreciation. Not unlike what we have learned in our work in emotional intelligence, we discovered that there is a chemical change within our brains when we engage in the dynamic of expressing and receiving appreciation.

The science behind appreciation

In 2003, Dr. Noelle Nelson authored a book entitled, “The Power of Appreciation, the Key to a Vibrant Life.” Her research draws from a number of scientific studies including Dr. Masaru Emoto’s water crystal research, which demonstrates that water is impacted by negative and positive/appreciative messages evidenced in the photographs of frozen water crystals that have been exposed to high energy words like love or low energy words like anger. Dr. Emoto uses messages on vials of water. He freezes the water and then as the water begins to melt he takes pictures of the crystals. The result is the photographs of water exposed to positive, affirming words are beautifully formed. The crystals with negative messages are muted and discolored.

The ramification for us of Dr. Emoto’s findings is significant given the fact that human cells are 70-90 percent water.

Dr. Nelson also studied the philosophy of HeartMath’s heart rhythm analysis, which suggests that, “the heart, physically and metaphorically, is the key to tapping into an intelligence that can provide us with fulfillment…Science has shown that the heart communicates with the body and brain on various levels….and through brain scans scientists recognize the enormous difference in brain functioning that occurs when people are thinking and feeling appreciation.”

Harness the energy

According to Dr. Nelson, appreciation is more than gratitude. Appreciation is a dynamic energy force, functioning according to scientific principles. This energy can be harnessed by anyone to achieve success. The contestants on American Idol harnessed the energy!

You have the ability to harness the energy within your organizations by creating an intentional culture of appreciation. Like the judges on American Idol you have the ability to notice and give voice to what is going well. You have the opportunity to focus on strengths, which will inspire your workforce to believe in themselves and to perform in unexpected productive ways. At the same time, your energy and spirit will be lifted so that you will offer uncommon leadership to advance the mission of your organizations. The energy will be palpable!

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

— Mother Theresa

Who will you appreciate today?

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