Last week I got to do something I haven’t done in over two years.  I finally made it back to the movie theater!  I’m an 80’s kid so getting to see Top Gun: Maverick was such a treat.  There was one scene that really touched me.  Val Kilmer’s character told Tom Cruises character “You need to let go.”  Now, I’m not giving any plot line away here, but the reason it had such an impact on me is that I feel like this has been the story of my life lately. Letting go of any fears I have about scaling the business. Letting go of a way of life with my youngest going off to college.  Letting go of being in the middle of every client engagement.  Letting go of well-ingrained habits that are negatively impacting my health. Letting go of relationships that don’t serve me. Letting go of long-held beliefs and assumptions.  Letting go of needing to make everyone happy.

But, I must admit this scenario isn’t always the case for me. I don’t always take the time to acknowledge what is going on inside of me or even in the world around me. Life gets in the way, and it is incredibly easy just to keep busy and stay content with the status quo. I chose to write this week on a subject that I struggle with because while we strive to help others grow, we aren’t without fault, of course.  . At Steople we believe that we should be walking the talk – that means everyone should constantly be stretching in their leadership abilities in order to become more effective. For me, the last few years have included always having “One Big Thing” that I was working on.  Some of these have included not being a bottleneck, slowing down while communicating more, implementing more automation to improve processes, and handing off work.  But, one of the biggest ones I have struggled with is acknowledgment.  I am a person who will always thank you, but not always remembers to acknowledge the good work.  I am a person that is fairly high on emotional intelligence, but not good at slowing down and acknowledging someone’s low performance.  See how one type of acknowledgment is positive and one is more negative?

Acknowledgment is defined both as displaying the appreciation for something good and as expressing the existence of something negative. Often, they go hand in hand.  Being an intentional leader who can acknowledge the good (for example, other’s achievements) will demonstrate that you are focused on results and able to share the credit. Being an intentional leader who can acknowledge the bad (for example, your own mistakes) will demonstrate that you are responsible, honest, and relatable.  If that is the case, why do many of us struggle with acknowledgment?

Underlying Reasons Why Leaders Don’t Acknowledge the Obvious

It is important to understand why people aren’t willing or able to acknowledge the good and the bad.  While understanding the “why” doesn’t solve the problem, it does shed light on others and/or our own behaviors.  Understanding what those underlying causes might be will allow us to have more grace with others and name what is really going on “under the hood” as we try to grow past our own old triggers. The following are some of the possibilities:

  1. If an individual is competitive—because they need constantly to prove themselves—then explicitly saying they are wrong or paying tribute to another’s achievements might make them feel as though they’re admitting inferiority, ineptitude, or defeat.
  2. If an individual was “recognition-deprived” when growing up, praising another might make them feel uneasy because they have been so accustomed to looking at things with a very critical eye.
  3. If a person thinks that another’s accomplishments and contributions are no more than what ought to be expected from them, they may not regard such acts as even worthy of acknowledgment.
  4. If a person believes that lauding another for their achievements might go to the recipient’s head—that is, lead them to become conceited or egotistical—then they may intentionally withhold recognition.
  5. If there is a culture of retribution where people have a need to “cut and cover” themselves to survive, they may be more likely to either throw someone else under the bus and/or not even acknowledge their own part in the problem.
  6. If an individual isn’t very motivated by acknowledgment themselves, it might not even occur to them that slowing down enough to recognize a person’s efforts and accomplishments might be in order.

The Importance of Acknowledging The Good

There is one simple action that can dramatically increase any leader’s success in gaining the support and engagement of his or her team members – acknowledge great work. That means calling out excellent accomplishments by your employees or peers right away, authentically, and in consistent increments.

Research by Harvard Business Review article involving 980 respondents from companies with more than 1,000 employees, suggests a special connection between acknowledgment and job satisfaction. Seven out of 10 employees who report they’ve received some form of appreciation from their team members say they’re happy with their jobs. Without that recognition, just 39% say they’re satisfied. And frequency plays a big role. Among employees who were called out for great work in the past month, 80% feel fulfilled at work. That number declines sharply with time: 75% satisfied (recognized in the past 1-2 months); 71% (past 3-5 months); 69% (past 6-12 months); 51% (past 1-2 years); 42% (more than 2 years ago).

We don’t think you have to worry about creating a specific “program” to acknowledge those good things you see happening in the workplace.  Simply remember 4 things: Don’t wait. Be specific. Be genuine. Treat employees like snowflakes…okay, I may need to explain that last one…the idea is that every employee responds differently to recognition. Many appreciate public praise. Others cringe if they’re made the center of attention. Know your team and tailor your acknowledgment so it produces the greatest impact for everyone.

The Importance of Acknowledging the Bad

Reasonable people realize when a mistake has been made and often, owning up to it solves the problem. Not owning up to it adds fuel and ignites a problem you may not be able to contain later. When a delivery is late, when your service was off the mark, when you completely forget an important deadline or phone call, don’t try to deny it. As soon as you realize it’s you, or your team, that’s dropped the ball, don’t make excuses.

Everyone makes mistakes. Literally everyone. Odds are good if mistakes are not typical for you, people will be appreciative and lenient when you come at them with honesty. You’ll also build up trust because everyone knows how hard it is to come forward and own your errors. Be courageously transparent and people will notice.

Believe it or not, some great companies celebrate mistakes internally with the intention of learning from them. Online giant Etsy gives out an annual award—a real three-armed sweater— to an employee who’s made an error. This demonstrates that accidents are acknowledged as a source of data, not something embarrassing to shy away from. The sweater goes to whoever made the most surprising error, not the worst one, as a reminder to examine the gap between how things are expected to happen and how they do.  And it absolutely improves innovation and decision-making in the process because people are not afraid to make mistakes!

What About the Ugly?

Now, as you know I am a big advocate of transparency as a leader, so I am going to say something here that might not be very popular.  What I’ve seen over the last several years in working with clients is that another responsibility of a leader is to go to bat for your team.  A leader in touch with their team’s capabilities, workload, intent, and environment can “protect” their team from the Ugly at times.  This might mean standing up to their board, it might mean not delivering bad news prematurely, or it might mean taking up for one of their team members over an established relationship with a client or vendor.  Now, that shouldn’t be the go-to or begin to become an unhealthy dynamic, but being courageously authentic and sometimes standing in the line of fire for your team can be key in certain situations.

As a leader, it is necessary for you to go above and beyond to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives…and being courageous in the meantime.  Being consistent in this will pay dividends in building your reputation as an effective leader.  Not to mention, being able to navigate the positive/negative ratio builds your credibility.