Updated: Mar 24
Just when the workplace seems distant and impersonal, acknowledgement rather than kudos may be the most game-changing instrument a leader can use to help individuals reconnect with others and regain their self-worth.
Coaching a CIO about findings on his team's wellbeing, I suggested that he might want to recognize their candid contribution to a survey we had run. Very thoughtfully in surprise, he asked, "do you mean give them an award or incentive?"
I realized I had not chosen my words well. What I meant was to acknowledge his people for having taken the time to provide valuable feedback. He, on the other hand, "heard" my suggestion as implying they should be rewarded for something. He wouldn't be alone because we tend to be wired that way in the workplace.
We associate recognition with praise shown for results produced or something we did well. Good managers and leaders know the importance of calling out successes by celebrating with some publicized information. Other times, the kudos is marked by tangible awards and ceremonial behaviour.
Few of us think of recognition outside of that context in the workplace, and rarely about social acknowledgement. You might say, what's the difference?
The kind of recognition described above, albeit a form of acknowledgement, is focused on achievements. What I'm calling attention to is the simple act of addressing someone for who they are by a slide nod, a subtle word, a conversation, a verbalized observation, a courtesy shown or a written statement made.
When recognition is not manifested or articulated, it is not acknowledgement. It is just passive knowledge that is not outwardly evident. For instance, we may recognize an acquaintance in the street but if we don't do anything about it, it remains knowledge we keep to ourselves.
In other words, acknowledgement is a form of "marked awareness". As Canadian philosopher, Trudy Govier describes it, acknowledging someone or something allows for that someone or something to be openly associated in some way to the acknowledger.
Ever wondered why some people practically swoon at being singled out by a celebrity? Think about the time when someone's face lit up because all you did was remember his or her name and said it out loud. The gesture would have been even more impactful if it had happened in the presence of others. You just helped to make them noteworthy, not only to you, but also to the community they "belong" to or feel connected with.
Acknowledging someone or the effort they make simply says they matter as a valuable human being without having to prove any feat. On Maslow's hierarchy of needs, such an act feeds into the tier of belonging and being loved, crucial to the next tier of self-esteem above.
The act of acknowledgement builds natural social awareness and because of that, it is more powerful as a healing instrument than any fanfare or praise. If you are interested to understand it's deeper healing impact, Ms Govier's paper on What is acknowledgment and why it is important highlights some compelling examples.
Otherwise, read on to know how acknowledgement can be our most priceless, yet simple gesture for healing the mental fatigue of organizational worklife over the past year.
You Are Valued
Work is where we spend almost two-thirds of our waking hours. The workplace is not only where we fulfill our financial security or self-esteem needs. It is where we feel part of a community. It can be a source of positive and negative energy, depending on how we get on and treat each other, fellow members of that community.
We are part of something bigger than ourselves because there is a purpose to the organization we work for, the choices we make to support it, the industry we serve or the ecosystem of formal and informal associations we belong to. But we seem to have forgotten all that in our rush to do more and squeeze more out of our already busy and long days in the name of productivity and tangible results.
Lately, these long drawn out effects have become unbearable for many as they stay isolated with little social contact outside pure work. For example, I hear horror stories of endless back-to-back and impersonal Zoom meetings that jump right into the task at hand without ever acknowledging anyone's presence.
New hires are left to their own devices (literally what happened to a friend who started a new job just as France went into lockdown). Colleagues who dial into voice conferences get overlooked or ignored by those who are physically together because they are not visible. People who live alone and get called by their boss late at night to have work discussions as though it were 11am rather than 11pm, no apology given.
There were also dire examples such as a boss who chose to stay oblivious and non-responsive to his team's need for support and help. Morale and progress were clearly affected. In another case, I saw the positive energy of a senior executive I coached turn into mental fatigue and disengagement literally overnight because he felt insulted and betrayed by his CEO. The latter had not thought to share a strategic hiring decision that directly put into question his role, professional identity, reputation and future in the company. In not so many words, that absence of courtesy "said" he was of little importance to his boss. His self-worth took a beating as a result.
People are working longer days and trying to do more to help their organizations stay afloat or to keep their jobs. In many parts of the world, they are doing this in all kinds of makeshift conditions that we cannot always fathom through a virtual window. Many feel invisible and disconnected from their colleagues, teams and physical workplaces as the ready opportunities for informal camaraderie and impromptu banters have practically disappeared.
So what can people managers and organization leaders do to make them feel they have not been forgotten and are truly seen through such barriers, perceived or real?
Let's Count The Ways ...
There is probably no limit to imagining the numerous ways we can acknowledge someone but if I were asked where to begin, these three areas are probably the most basic to the needed healing right now.
1) Acknowledge the presence and effort for showing up in the moment
Start the first interaction of the day with each person by asking "how are you today?" and mean it. Those few minutes of checking-in and sharing doesn't cost a thing and will make all the difference in their world as well as nurture collective empathy between colleagues as they open up to a small aspect of their personal life.
Say thank you spontaneously, even for trying. In these times, trying is big because so much is stacked against us. Continuous effort says that person is still engaged and striving to rise above and beat circumstances that could so easily derail anyone. The least we can do is to acknowledge the resilience they are demonstrating.
It is not about cheering people on. It's about saying we see how much effort they are putting in to show up and do what's right in spite of low energy or the string of bad days they've been having.
2) Acknowledge the importance of collective wellbeing
Checking in individually and regularly is important, but to get healing to a systemic level, leaders have to acknowledge the importance of collective wellbeing to overall performance. Carrying out structured and group check-ins designed for impartial, candid and blameless feedback sends this message. It enables them to share under the safety of the group what they can't share sensitively in person.
At the same time, people are brought together to derive shared meaning from the findings. It becomes a valuable step to informed collective awareness that encourages bonding and shared responsibility to perhaps be better or do better. (Check the Revive to Thrive turnkey program that you can easily leverage right away.)
Something like this also says you are making time because you care enough to understand where they might be stuck or less than satisfied. Happiness is contagious and so is unhappiness. Paying attention and allowing for your observations to be known may nip any concerns in the bud and actually make the difference between spreading positive or negative energy.
3) Acknowledge your confidence and trust in them
You can help your people by being the "mirror" in reflecting back on their efforts and contributions. Acknowledging what you see in what they made happen (even when there are no visible results) creates an awareness of their own value and potential.
Better yet, enable them to do a qualitative 360° feedback assessment. You will be giving them the under-estimated gift of self-realization to deeper understanding and learning for personal growth.
Doing this also reinforces confidence and resilience, helping them to build on their strengths. Since soft skills are social by nature, they are best developed through self-awareness, interpersonal connections, situational exposure and guided practice. That's why many organizations and leaders are increasingly turning to coaching and mentoring.
Don't have the time yourself? Think about the gift of professional coaching then (here are a couple of performance and leadership development services that might help). In these uncertain economic times, there could be no bigger acknowledgement of your confidence and continued belief in your people than to invest in their self-development. It will certainly be more effective in helping them counter mental fatigue and stress than monetary incentives or a pay raise ever can. While you are at it, remember not to neglect your own needs as well. Both leadership and team coaching often go best hand-in-hand.
Leading To Healing
While I was with the administrative assistant, paying for a medical consultation some years back, my surgeon interrupted her about some patient mix-up he found confusing. He was clearly distracted. Without batting an eyelid, she ironed it out for him, all while handling the task at hand. So I jokingly said, "what would you do without her, doc!".
He looked a little taken aback. She, on the other hand, was clearly delighted that someone had remarked on her efficiency to her boss. I'd like to believe it helped make her day for she always seemed extraordinarily patient with me even though her workload appeared endless.
The art of acknowledgement is not rocket science. However, to reap real value, it has to be sincere. It's not sweet talk, nor is it calculated. What it requires is attentiveness and thoughtfulness of individuals and people in general. In the case of the executive I mentioned, although he received reassurances later that he was valued, they didn't ring true for him. The damage had already been done.
At times, knowing what to acknowledge and when calls for courage to have the difficult conversations we don't want to have. No doubt harder to do amidst chaos, noise and distractions, especially now. Yet now is the time when we can draw most from its power to start the healing of a tumultuous year.
What will you do to practice social acknowledgement and where else do you think it might be needed? I find The Center for Grateful Leadership a pretty good resource if you'd like to get into it more.