This is a story about acknowledgments: how to offer them, what they are, and their impact when employed effectively.
As leaders, many of us crave core acknowledgment from our peers and managers. Acknowledgment in coaching is the skill of really seeing someone — both what they are doing and who they are. Acknowledgment means taking the time to pause and genuinely let someone know that you see them. Most of us are starved for this kind of recognition. We crave the feeling of having our efforts noticed and our positive qualities pointed out.
Barriers to Accepting Praise
My client Ed (not his real name) had gained a reputation for being critical and self-interested. When we first started working together, he admitted that he struggled to give compliments to his team, finding that even when he did articulate them, no one seemed to notice or hear the praise he was delivering.
As his coach, when I acknowledged Ed during a session — his tenacity at work or his commitment to excellence, for example — he would immediately brush off the comment by tacking on a qualifier, explaining away my acknowledgment and pointing out some fatal flaw he possesses.
When I finally called him on this habit, a light bulb went off for Ed: “That’s what I do with the team, too,” he exclaimed. “When I give a compliment, I almost always tack on an area they can improve in right after.”
When acknowledgment is done well, it can transform teams and cultures, and once you get the hang of it, it can be a surprisingly effortless and enjoyable practice for leaders. However, many managers have a hard time giving positive feedback, afraid that it will demotivate teams. Others simply struggle to notice positive qualities and actions in the first place, or when they do notice, like Ed, they lack the skills to effectively deliver positive acknowledgment in a way that the team hears and retains it.
Learning to Give Positive Feedback
Statistically, teams and individuals need to receive a ratio of five times as much positive to negative feedback to thrive, according to research by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy, primarily because most of us tend to focus on and retain the negative information about ourselves rather than the positive information.
When acknowledgments are delivered poorly, they can sound like flowery compliments, insincere flattery, or surface-level, routinized praise, all of which can feel “flat” for the recipient.
You may be familiar with the compliment sandwich — which may taste terrible to the receiver.
Additionally, many managers default to giving praise only about discrete actions or performance-based achievements (e.g., “great job on this week’s roundup”), which can feel insincere, acknowledging worth solely tied to outcomes.
Start Acknowledging Others Today
The practice of acknowledgment asks that we look for and name the qualities we see, admire, or appreciate in someone. Acknowledgments are about what you notice and observe in the other person that moves you. They are most powerful when kept short and delivered authentically, in real-time. It is important that when you deliver an acknowledgment, you let go of any attachment to how the person responds to what you say — in other words, this is not about being “right” about them. It’s about offering the statement as a gift or observation that they can take or leave. And obviously, as Ed learned the hard way, acknowledgments should be delivered not before an impending negative piece of feedback, but as a stand-alone statement.
Here are some powerful acknowledgments you can try out today:
You are(examples here): You are courageous. You are brave. You are kind. You are a committed friend.
I see/notice/observe: I see you being so generous. I notice your flexibility and thoughtfulness.
I admire/acknowledge/appreciate: I admire your tenacity. I acknowledge your love of this work. I celebrate your inclusion and teamwork.
It may take a little time to get the hang of this skill and to practice the delivery so that it does not feel disingenuous, forced or “cheesy.” It is important to take your time and let the acknowledgment land with the other person, who may need encouragement from you to fully take in your words, rather than move to brush them off, disqualify them or make a self-depreciating remark. Help them take in and hear what you are offering by really seeing them, often with a simple pause.
This skill requires we practice holding people bigger than they hold themselves, as in our Co-Active coaching practice — holding others as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. It also requires that as leaders we begin to practice letting ourselves be acknowledged, graciously accepting those gifts that come our way, where we may normally be tempted to squirm away.
To truly notice each other’s tremendous qualities and to dare to name them aloud — to the grocery store clerk, to the new staff member, to the 8-year-old nephew — is an extraordinary gift available to us all, starting right now.
Go forth and practice, and know that I acknowledge your appetite and courage for taking on this transformative skill.
When was the last time you noticed that you were acknowledged in an effective way or you were able to acknowledge another person effectively? We’d love for you to share an example.
Please add your experience here in the comment thread.