Got Acknowledgment?

Remember the gold star? It’s been decades since I last thought about that classic grade school icon of achievement.

Back then, earning one of those sticky little foil stars from my teacher was a big deal for me — maybe because it didn’t happen that often. Seeing a gold star on my paper made me feel acknowledged and important. I confess that it also made me work harder on the next project or assignment — more so than I probably would have if simply left to my own devices.

As working adults, we don’t get gold stars anymore, and I think that’s too bad. Current findings in positive psychology and organizational development bear me out, suggesting that people and organizations flourish when they focus on achievements and best practices.

One other member of the workforce development community agrees, too. In her thought-provoking book The Power of Acknowledgment, Judith W. Umlas maintains that acknowledging each other’s accomplishments, talent and wisdom on a continuous basis is the grown-up equivalent of the grade school gold star and can revolutionize the workplace.

Umlas is a senior vice president at the International Institute for Learning (IIL). She believes that creating a culture of appreciation within an organization or team can produce breakthrough results. She presents a strong business case for acknowledgment and drives home the need to incorporate it into the workplace, listing the payoffs as increased employee engagement, enhanced productivity and better working relationships.

At the heart of her thesis are the seven principles of acknowledgment. One of these principles should resonate strongly with organizational leaders concerned about maximizing the potential of their human capital:

“Principle No. 4: Recognizing good work leads to high energy, great feelings, high-quality performance and terrific results. Not acknowledging good work causes lethargy, resentment, sorrow and withdrawal.”

Umlas isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know from numerous studies and reports. The Gallup Organization, for example, estimates that the annual productivity loss in the U.S. from having disengaged employees is $300 billion. According to Umlas, this startling level of disengagement results from people not knowing they are valued and feeling they are not contributing.

“I see a lot of event and webinar announcements from HR organizations — they seem to always be looking for ways to keep their major talent engaged,” Umlas writes in her blog. “They need look no further than making sure that they have created a culture of appreciation in their organizations. … I have heard acknowledgment referred to as ‘the double paycheck,’ which I think is very fitting. Even people who are earning less money than they feel they should be earning will dig in and engage fully if that other ‘paycheck’ is coming regularly.”

Like all who aspire to high-impact leadership, learning executives must develop the soft skills that support the harder assets they bring to the table, such as strategic thinking and business acumen. Acknowledgment is one of those soft, but oh-so-critical leadership skills. It has the power both to influence important decisions and to inspire people to attain peak performance. And it affects every organization’s ability to step up performance to meet new challenges.

For the learning organization, acknowledgment is part and parcel of assuring the continuing commitment of high potentials and preparing strong leaders to fill the company pipeline. The trick, of course, is knowing how to use the tool of acknowledgment in an effective way. Providing dynamic leadership development, mentoring opportunities and strengths-based coaching are all concrete ways to acknowledge the value of employees and demonstrate the organization’s commitment to advancing their careers.

Umlas asks, “Who is it in your work life that really deserves, needs and desires your acknowledgment, and to whom have you not freely, generously and profoundly given it?” Today, I asked myself that same question. And the answer was — you.

Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you? Well, let me take this opportunity to acknowledge in no uncertain terms how much I value the support, insights and friendship I receive on a daily basis from all the members of the Chief Learning Officer magazine community. You inspire me just as I hope our work inspires you. So give yourself a gold star. You’ve earned it.

Norm Kamikow
Editor in Chief