Acknowledgment: A Powerful Tool to Grow Individuals and Teams
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.
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.