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Making the Most of Acknowledgment

July 1, 1999
Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article
No, no, not that! Anything but that!"

I'll never forget how Eric's face turned beet red. It was supposed to be a surprise, and was it ever. Laid off? Nope. Demoted? Not at all. Shipped off to the Aleutian Islands field office? No such luck. Eric had just been named employee of the month. I'll never forget his anguish. Yes, it was anguish! "This is what I get for being a good employee?!"

The honor (sorry for abusing the word, Eric) included a country-club lunch with the boss' boss' boss, a canned letter of thanks from the CEO, 30 days of having his framed picture hanging in the lobby, and a front-row parking space among the spots reserved for senior management. He actually gave the parking perk to a pregnant colleague who was sick and tired of walking the quarter mile from her usual space.

With all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the head, Eric's story reminds us that meaningful acknowledgment is tricky business. It should be simple, right? Heck, it's one of our first lessons in life: Say thank you. Yet we continue to turn acknowledgment into an event, distort it with extrinsic motivators, and taint it with an undercurrent of internal competition. And when we do, we end up with lots and lots of Erics.

Another friend told me about a yearly recognition ceremony at her company. The 50 "top performers" (their term) gather for a big formal dinner and a speech or two. Then each person is called to the front, where they can reach into the "treasure chest" (their term again) and pull out a surprise thank-you gift. Denise has suffered through -- uh, I mean, attended -- three of these events. "By the time I get a babysitter and a new outfit, this so-called recognition dinner costs me quite a few bucks," she said. Her most recent thank-you gift? "Ceramic seashell coasters." (long pause) "I would have preferred a baseball bat, especially at that moment."

Then there's the kind of acknowledgment that's supposed to inspire people to do great things. It hardly ever does. Let's eavesdrop as Martha, the manager of a 10-person work unit, quotes almost directly from the book "Things a Manager Should Never, Ever, Ever Say:"

Before we finish our meeting, I just want to recognize Mike for his great work the other week. He really was a lifesaver.

Well, I couldn't have done it without --

Oh, you're so humble! Seriously, you really showed all of us what high performance is all about. Perhaps you could sit down with Ken and Mary and the others and show them how you do it. Ken, Mary, staff, doesn't that sound like a good idea?

Actually, it was Ken and Mary who --

Ken (whispering to Mary):
Let's spend the afternoon making a Martha voodoo doll.

Mary (back to Ken):
I'll get the pushpins.

Ken (still whispering):
Poor Mike.

Yeah, but I hate him anyway. Let's whip together a Mike doll too.

There's also the sincerity issue, which comes across loud and clear in exchanges like this:

Head Muckety-Muck:
I heard really great things about your work on the new account, Bob. Fantastic job!
Thanks, but my name is Steve, not Bob.
Well, in that case, many thanks to both of you.
I'm not sure anyone by that name works here.

HMM (striding quickly to another high-priority meeting):
Well, keep up the great work, Bob!

Okay, so acknowledgment is easier said than done. But it needs to be done! Here are practical tips to reorient your thinking and prompt some positive action:

  • Instead of focusing on big events to recognize people, work to create a culture of appreciation. Make acknowledgment a part of the daily routine. Leave Oscar night to the folks in Hollywood.
  • Become an obsessive observer. Notice what other people are doing, and respond by acknowledging their efforts and celebrating their achievements. This is not Harvard MBA stuff. A simple "thank you" or "awesome job" -- sincerely conveyed, of course -- can transform a relationship.
  • Regardless of what you do or where you are in the organization, make yourself a model of down-to-earth acknowledgment. It has to start with you! In this era of teams, people are always working hand in hand, so you should have plenty of opportunities to show your appreciation.
  • Remember that dialogue plays a key role in all of this. Instead of engaging in hit-and-run acknowledgment, take the time to talk about efforts and successes with those who are involved. I'm all for fast companies, but this is one case where it helps to slow down.
  • Last but not least, use these two questions to seed a conversation with your colleagues: Why is it that we insist on giving extrinsic rewards when countless studies -- not to mention the Erics and Denises of the world -- confirm that true motivation is intrinsic? And what can we do to make the most of the intrinsic stuff? Prediction #1: This will be a mind-opening conversation, especially when people start to reveal how they'd like to be acknowledged. Prediction #2: No one's going to want ceramic seashell coasters!

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