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Taylor Halverson: Appreciation and the myth of the zero-sum game

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I’ve worked in a variety of organizations. And sad to report, certain weaknesses in human nature are alive and well wherever we go.

One of the pernicious problems in any organization is the myth of the zero-sum game of appreciation.

We’ve all experienced it. We work hard, give our very best effort, and yet no one seems to notice, let alone appreciate what we’ve done. That influences us to say, “Well, I won’t express appreciation to others for their work, I won’t acknowledge their accomplishments.” This vicious cycle runs its dizzying circuit until the love and humanity that can exist among people has been suffocated. Why does this happen? Because of the myth of the zero-sum game of appreciation.

Before I explain the game, what is appreciation?

Appreciation contains three key ingredients, what I call the three Rs: Recognition, Respect and Response.

• Recognition means to be aware that there is an opportunity for appreciation.

• Respect literally means “to look again,” especially to look again at someone, to acknowledge and recognize their existence and their humanity. Without respect, without the willingness to acknowledge others or to be respected or acknowledged, appreciation is impossible.

• Response originally meant “to pledge again.” It means to give back to someone, to answer someone. Appreciation cannot be fulfilled, completed or satisfied, unless one person gives to another.

Thus, to complete the path of appreciation, one must recognize an opportunity for appreciation, see someone who needs appreciation, and respond by giving to that someone.

All of these ingredients fundamentally are based on building relations, acknowledging those around us and treating them as we would like to be treated.

Now to the game. The wheels of the mind can run in the following fashion to perpetuate the myth of the zero-sum game of appreciation: There are a fixed number of appreciation units that everyone in a given group can draw upon to share with others. Every time someone from the group makes use of an existing unit of appreciation to share with someone else, the number of appreciation units diminishes. There are then fewer units of appreciation to share with the group.

Everyone in the group now has a lower chance of receiving any of the remaining units of appreciation. And for every additional unit of appreciation that is consumed from the remaining pool, the problem of decreasing units is compounded at a faster rate. Each member of the group now has an increasingly less likely chance of receiving appreciation. That unlikeliness of receiving appreciation depreciates at an exponential rate.

These circumstances negatively motivate the members of the group to withhold appreciation in order to preserve the remaining units. More negatively, the group and social pressure to not use the remaining units of appreciation rises rapidly, thus further discouraging and depressing any heartfelt sense of sharing appreciation with those in the group.

So for those that have a zero-sum game mentality, if the pie shrinks, there is even more reason not to share appreciation for fear that the few remaining units of appreciation will never be shared with them. People will fight harder to not use up the few remaining units of appreciation.

Pause for a moment and seriously consider what would happen if we all recognized that there is no fixed amount of appreciation units? Just like the economy that is not a fixed set of units, but can grow and expand, we can grow and expand appreciation.

In fact, appreciation only grows if it is exercised. If not exercised, appreciation depreciates and withers.

We might consider a few reflective questions:

• How much does appreciation cost?

• Or consider the alternative, how much does it cost to withhold appreciation?

• How much does it cost an organization to build a culture of appreciation? Are those costs of expressing appreciation higher or lower than the costs of withholding appreciation?

• What would happen if we shared more appreciation for others? For their work, effort, accomplishments, their lives, dreams and worthy goals?

Institutions, organizations, families and individuals everywhere would benefit from giving and receiving more appreciation.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged, “be kind, and be grateful that God is kind. It is a happy way to live. … We are not diminished when someone else is added upon” (see "The Laborers in the Vineyard,” general conference, April 2012).

If we choose to live a flourishing, expansive life of appreciation, disavowing the myth of the zero-sum game of appreciation, we’ll find our health, happiness and relationships magnified, our thoughts elevated and our accomplishments meaningful.

Taylor Halverson, who holds doctorates in biblical studies and instructional technology, is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.