A Culture of Positive Appreciation

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, May 2006

High achievers, those focused on ways to improve an organization, may not be as appreciative as they should be. I’ve spent the past 15 years trying to turn my overachieving nature inside out and become good at appreciation.

True appreciation can create an organizational culture in which appreciation and positive energy are the norms rather than the exceptions, a culture in which people feel valued for their work and help those around to do the same. Leading with appreciation creates a positive culture.

Yet working to be more appreciative has put me into a paradoxical box. In order to live the appreciative role, I need to recognize how much we have achieved, while realizing that we also have a long way to go. I’ve made peace with the reality that I can be both exceedingly appreciative of achievement to date and still be driven to make things better.

The same basic formula or recipe that works within our service culture also applies to the development of an atmosphere of positive appreciation. Five areas of concentration allow us to create a positive service-oriented culture and organization—we teach service, define it, live it, measure it and reward it. And the same is true for appreciation.

So, here’s a quick look at what we do:

1. Teach it. 
Rather than just assume that an appreciative attitude is the “obvious thing to do, we actively teach the idea of, and techniques to implement, positive appreciation. We do so through formal and informal venues.

The training and teaching is based on Zingerman’s Training Compact, which includes a commitment to recognize and reward everyone who meets or exceeds expectations. Staff feedback says this is critical. To quote Katie Janky, who works at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, “When job expectations are made clear, it’s easier to perform what is expected and one feels gratified by doing what is asked of them well, thus appreciated. This may also transfer into a good review and a raise, which is a sign to some that they are appreciated.

The “Welcome to Zingerman’s” staff orientation class is still taught by me to all incoming staff. (When I can’t teach, my co-founder and partner Paul Saginaw does.) We touch on the importance of positive appreciation at least half a dozen times during the two-hour class, mentioning specific ways we do it. I model the desired behavior by appreciating what people in the class say or have done in their work to date or their lives before Zingerman’s. I also praise the efforts and achievements of others by mentioning departments or businesses that have had great successes, peers of the new staff who are doing a particularly good job, etc.

We also teach other classes, most of which include mentions of the importance of an appreciative approach. Every employee regularly hears from leaders in the organization that we value and model a positive and appreciative environment, and that we expect staff members to behave the same way.

2. Define it.
There are several well-meaning, but not very productive, ways in which most organizations address appreciation. There’s the “People should know that we appreciate them—after all we keep paying them, don’t we?” approach. Others adopt the “Why do we have to tell people this—they should just act like adults!” angle. There’s also the “It’s just the Golden Rule—treat others the way you want to be treated” method. Yet it’s far more effective to simply set clear positive expectations up front, and then share those with the staff.

There are several ways we attempt that, including:
• Our mission talks about bringing a positive “Zingerman’s Experience” to everyone we come into contact with, to every customer, supplier, peer or neighbor. It’s not enough to just make sandwiches, bake bread or do accounting—our jobs should make positive experiences happen.

• One of our three Bottom Lines is Great Service, and that includes creating a positive workplace in which everyone feels valued and knows their work makes a difference.

• Our guiding principles also outline an appreciative environment. Specifically, they state, “We give great service to each other as well as to our guests. We go the extra mile for each other. We are polite, supportive, considerate, superb listeners, working on the basis of mutual respect and care.”

• Visioning: This means starting our work with an inspiring, strategically sound and written vision of what things will look like when we’re successful at a point in time in the future. This emphasis on going after what we want—rather than fighting off what we don’t want—creates a more positive and appreciative attitude throughout the organization.

• The 4-to-1 Ratio: We attempt to deliver a daily average of four parts praise to one part constructive criticism. Both aspects of this equation are important. The four parts praise is significant—it puts people like me to the test to take time to notice the myriad things that are right every day. The one part constructive criticism gives credibility to the four parts that are positive—without helping others see how they can be even more effective the praise can sound like empty happy talk. Together, the two create a balanced, primarily positive, helpful approach to on-the-job feedback.

3. Live it.
Although most will agree with the theory that an appreciative culture is a good idea, many organizations fall far short. We all need to walk the talk by doing the following:

a. Appreciate yourself
An appreciative environment must be driven from within us as leaders. Before I could even begin to effectively accomplish this work, I had to discipline myself to treat myself with the same respectful appreciative approach that I wanted to deliver to others.

Peter Koestenbaum, writing in Talk is Walk: Language and Courage in Action, said, “. . . you need a friend even if you are that friend.”  For me, this meant learning to treat myself respectfully, to appreciate myself for what I have achieved. Toward that end, I adopted an almost daily routine of making myself pay close attention to the many positive things, great people, wonderful food and service that surround me. I regularly make lists of people and things that I might have failed to appreciate of late.

b. Appreciate the appreciators for being appreciative
Leaders help those we work with be successful. And that success can be helped by managers and staff being appreciative of those they work with and serve. One of the most effective things we can do organizationally is to set up systems and structures that help—even require—people to be more appreciative.

c. Appreciations
This is one of the best things we’ve ever done. (Thanks go to Lex Alexander, who founded Wellspring Grocery in North Carolina and now runs the excellent 3 Cups Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill.) Every meeting always ends with a few minutes of Appreciations. Appreciations can be of anything or anyone; in the room or not in the room; work-related or not; past, present or future. No one is required to say anything, but most people usually do. This one small systemic change has made a huge impact over the years. Think of it like ending a meal with a good cup of coffee; because every meeting ends with them, people almost always return to the organizational world with positive feelings. Its regularity disciplines us to devote time and mental energy to positive recognition.

d. Appreciations in the staff newsletter
The same format is followed in our monthly staff newsletter. Each issue contains three, four, even five pages of appreciations and thank-yous from managers and peers.

e. Code Greens 

This is the name for the form we use to capture and communicate compliments we hear from customers. Could be big, could be small, but any positive comment we hear is written up on a Code Green. Those are then shared with as many people as possible, sometimes on email, sometimes through bulletin-board postings, sometimes by reading them aloud at meetings. The key is that the information is shared and that the people who work in the organization hear the positive feedback from customers.

f. Performance reviews
These are a good tool to keep us focused on positive achievements. Every session starts with a listing or review of achievements of the individual involved.

g. Specificity
It’s of greater value when giving praise to be specific about what it is we appreciate. While general thanks and kudos never hurt, it’s more helpful to be clear.

h. Going the extra mile
Because we treat our staff like customers, “going the extra mile”—the third of our 3 Steps to Great Service—applies to them, too. And that means doing something unexpected that they didn’t ask for, something that shows appreciation and creates a positive feeling. Something as simple as a Post-it note stuck to a computer screen, a handwritten note dropped in the mail, a flower or a thank-you card . . . these little things can make an enormous difference.

i. The “3 and Out” Rule 
This is an internal mechanism that I use regularly. When I’m having a rough day, positive appreciation is the easiest way to turn things around. The old baseball saying is, “three and out. Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate—when in doubt, three and out. I find at least three people that I haven’t fully appreciated as I should have, and then quickly let them know that I do. In the process of turning my day around, I’ve contributed something small but upbeat to those with whom I’ve interacted.

j. Benefits

The amount of energy and resources that an organization contributes to staff benefits sends a message of appreciation. At Zingerman’s, benefits are available to, and impact, all levels of the organization.

4. Measure it.
Although we don’t do this as much as we should, we do have the formats that allow us to measure appreciation, both formally and informally.

The quarterly staff survey is based on the 12 questions advocated in the book, First Break All the Rules, and includes things like: • In the past seven days have I received praise for my work? • Does my supervisor or someone at work care about me as a person? • Do my opinions count? The surveys are reviewed by each business and department, providing a basis for organizational “self-improvement and a good sense of what we’re achieving.

Performance reviews should be done in a timely manner out of respect and appreciation for the staff. We also at times track things like “extra miles (going out of the way to do something extra for peers orService awards also show appreciation. We give awards each month to the special service providers in our organization and also offer rewards to those who recognize the work of others.

We “Share the Success by paying bonuses or giving award prizes to those who have contributed to our financial success. We also give to the community, which demonstrates an appreciation of how fortunate we are and creates a generosity of spirit.

Do the Right Thing
Being appreciative is the right thing to do from every angle. Everyone wants to feel valued; people want to know that their efforts make a difference, and that they are part of something greater than themselves. When they feel that their work is contributing positively, they are more likely to go beyond the norm. An appreciative culture sets a positive tone.

There’s not much neutral ground in this area. The absence of appreciation is not neutral. Saying nothing leads most people to think that their work is NOT valued. Then, negative energy, silo mentality and self-serving approaches creep into people’s work. The culture starts to go downhill—fast.