Acknowledgment: A Powerful Tool to Grow Individuals and Teams - International Coaching Federation
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Acknowledgment: A Powerful Tool to Grow Individuals and Teams

Posted by Barb Pierce, PCC | November 3, 2014 | Comments (10)

There has been significant research in the past fifty years regarding the benefits of positive reinforcement.   In many settings, this approach has been coined Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  AI is an approach to change that focuses on what is working well and builds on successes rather than on problem identification and solving.  It can be used one-on-one or in large groups and is appropriate for personal change work, strategic planning, organization redesign and evaluations.

Simply put: you get more of what you choose to focus on.

Why Acknowledgment?

People want to be acknowledged for their contributions.  It helps people feel appreciated.  It is also a tool you can use to highlight and reinforce skills and behaviors that will lead towards success.  For best results, it is important to remember that:

1.  Acknowledgment is not the same as praise;

2.  You must acknowledge people for skills and behaviors that are meaningful to the employee or the team; and

3. Acknowledgment must be sincere and specific.

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” –Willie Nelson

Acknowledgment vs. Praise

People who are masterful at acknowledgment listen carefully to what is important to others and then look for ways to acknowledge the other person when she has done things or made choices that support those values or goals.  An example of acknowledgment is: “I want to acknowledge the courage it took for you to volunteer to be the spokesperson.  I know that public speaking is a personal skill that you want to improve.”

Praise, on the other hand, is a way of offering approval and judgment.  An example of praise is: “You did a really good job.”   Praise is patronizing.  It is vague and does not reinforce specific behaviors or skills, nor how they link to future goals.

Provide Meaningful Acknowledgment

Acknowledgment is not random; it is used strategically with the positive intention of growing and developing others.   The act of noticing behaviors that have a positive impact on the person and the organization helps people get clear on their impact on the goals.

For maximum benefit, you find out what is important to your employee, and then you find ways to reinforce success.  Potential questions include:

“What skills are you working on?”

“What would you like to be acknowledged for?”

“What are you working towards?”

“What is important to you?”

If your employee tells you that she is working towards improving her ability to connect with others, find ways to acknowledge related behaviors and actions.  Tell her what you noticed and the positive effect that it had on you or the team.


If you are simply going through the motions of acknowledgment to make your employees feel good, they will notice that your words do not match your tone of voice, body language and energy.  This approach breaks rapport and inhibits the development of a trusting relationship.

Sincere acknowledgment, on the other hand, builds relationships.  The recipient knows that the leader cares enough to notice behaviors and skills that lead to success.  To acknowledge another person with sincerity, you must have a strong connection with her and be aware of her current skills and abilities, what her goals are, and those behaviors and skills she is focusing on to get there.  You must truly understand the challenges she is facing and why certain skills will lead towards personal growth.

Tips for Acknowledgment

  • Use specific examples
  • Don’t use superlatives (e.g. “great,” or “fantastic”)
  • Acknowledge behaviors or actions that are meaningful to the recipient
  • Be sincere


Acknowledgment is a cornerstone of appreciative inquiry—a proven method of positive reinforcement.  Sincere acknowledgment reminds people of what they are doing well and how it relates to the long-term goal.  It builds relationships and shows that you care about the recipient’s contributions and future success.

Learn more about acknowledgment and appreciative inquiry here.

Barb Pierce

Barb Pierce, PCC

Barb Pierce, BEng, MBA, PCC is the author of Become a Coach Leader – One Conversation at a Time.  A former army engineering officer and project manager, Barb shows you how to engage in purposeful conversations that build loyalty and trust. Drawing on more than 2,500 hours of coaching experience, Barb has been teaching coaching skills to coaches and leaders since 2008. Based on her unique background and experiences, she has integrated a holistic approach to coaching that creates a safe foundation for exploration and growth.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (10)

  1. dana shankle says:

    Appreciative Inquiry (AI) fits into the Management Model. I can see how Meaningful Acknowledgement can help motivate employees to continue to achieve goals. I think praise is beneficial also. Think about it more.

  2. Gracias Barb. Nos regalaste un gran aporte para la tarea del coach y de las relaciones diarias.

  3. Yusuf Mulani says:

    Thank you for sharing. One nice tool to send tons of pictures to someone is called Binfer. The site is

  4. Jan Carley says:

    The one difference that I remind myself and my client leaders of is that Praise, or Recognition is about the task/the accomplishment done and Deep Acknowledgment is about what in the person allowed themselves to do what they did. Deep acknowledgment goes way deeper and lasts way longer.
    As long as it is authentic, recognition/praise is a good thing, especially when you are specific in your recognition. ( A blanket “Way to go” or “Fabulous job” are still good yet very fleeting). Deep Acknowledgment of the person goes much deeper so if it is possible to authentically add that piece to your feedback, then do it!

    (eg/ Recognition/Praise: Great job of organizing the retreat Sue – you really thought of every single detail and our guest speakers really felt taken care of. Thanks so much!

    vs. Deep acknowledgment: Thanks so much Sue for your great job of organizing the retreat. Your care, your kindness, integrity and commitment was really felt by all of the guests and speakers. Your listening skills and intuitiveness to their needs had a huge impact and made them feel like they were really taken care of. and that allowed them to focus on what they were there for – to make the best presentation possible. Thanks so much!

    -Jan Carley

  5. I appreciate you taking the time to share this info, I love reading more on this.

  6. So nice to find someone with original thoughts on this topic.

  7. This has been pretty generous of people like you in giving extensive advice.

  8. The Shed Lot says:

    I enjoyed every little piece of it and have bookmarked your website.

  9. This really presented the facts, thank you!

  10. […] It is very important to acknowledge the success because it helps to build a stronger team. As this Coach Federation article explains, acknowledgment is a cornerstone of appreciative inquiry, which is a proven method […]

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