The Power of Acknowledgement

One simple task can transform your team

When my husband and I first started dating, we would constantly give each other compliments. It seemed like we couldn’t say enough nice things to one another. I would get emails and notes from him with sweet, thoughtful sayings. We weren’t an anomaly; during the dating stage of relationships, it is not uncommon for compliments to exceed negative comments by as many as nine to one. And at this stage, couples often feel the most in love.

What does this have to do with leadership and teams? It turns out that acknowledgement and feeling appreciated are primary motivators for employees. It also often sited for leaving a company.

When I’m working with businesses, I hear employees or managers complain about how they don’t feel appreciated. “It really doesn’t matter what I do, or how hard I work because management doesn’t ever seem to appreciate the things that I do,” an employee once told me. “Instead, they just tell me to work harder or to do more — so why should I even bother? I might as well just maintain my current level of performance.”

It’s easy to get so busy putting out fires in our business and managing our day-to-day lives that we overlook acknowledging our team members.

We also have a tendency to focus our conversations on making requests or discussing how our teams can improve. Just like a relationship with a loved one or spouse, it’s sometimes easier to focus on faults and forget to notice things we appreciate.

“The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” from the March 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review, described a study that set out to determine the difference between the most and least successful teams.

The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams, Heaphy and Losada found, was the ratio of positive comments (“I agree with that,” for instance, or “That’s a terrific idea”) to negative comments (“I don’t agree with you” “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”) that the participants made to one another. (Negative comments, we should point out, could go as far as sarcastic or disparaging remarks.) The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one).

When we acknowledge team members, not only do they begin to perform better because they feel appreciated and acknowledged, but as leaders, it also causes us to shift our perception about our team members and recognize their positive attributes. We begin to treat them differently and interact with them in a more positive, empowering way.

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The following is a process I teach my leaders and employees. It’s helpful to first demonstrate this process to your leadership team, then have your leaders train their team members in it.

1. Ask for permission. Many team members are uncomfortable receiving compliments and tend to deflect them. You might initiate your request for an acknowledgement by saying, “Mary, may I acknowledge you for something?” That may sound corny, I realize that. However, asking for permission gives the other person the opportunity to agree and to be in a receptive mode.

2. Include specifics and details. Tell them exactly what you appreciate about them or their actions.

3. Describe the impact it had on you, the customer and the situation.

In a formal training session, you would have the person receiving the compliment complete the exercise by saying, “Thank you.”

Don’t just mention this once to your leadership team and team members. Repeat the training frequently and consistently acknowledge employees so it becomes embedded in your work culture.

I always conclude my on-site trainings by giving leaders and employees the opportunity to acknowledge one another. This is a powerful moment, and there are often tearful moments.

All of us yearn for acknowledgment, and it can be transformative for both giver and receiver. Create a culture of acknowledgment in your business, organization (and your personal life, for that matter), and see how quickly it transforms your employees, their performance and the work environment.