Creating stars through acknowledgment

motivating and retaining your best people through acknowledgment

Judith Umlas, Senior Vice President – Learning Innovations, International Institute for Learning, Publisher IIL Publishing N.Y. and Co- for Publisher allpm Newsletter

Acknowledgement is something that everyone seeks many times during their career, among friends, and especially after what is personally interpreted as a job well done. Basically everyone likes to be acknowledged for their contributions at work, in the home, and in other communities where people spend their time doing something of value or assisting others. Appreciation gives people a certain lift at the start of a day and will help carry people through the some times challenging work environment. The simplest forms or appreciation and acknowledgment are phrases such as “Good job” or “Nice Work.” There is a certain thrill that is experienced when one hears those words. Think about the feeling that came over you when a teacher gave you a gold star for a great book report or for doing something outstanding in the class room. Acknowledgement is a very important ingredient in the development of character, values, and leadership and can make a very significant difference in how employees, team members, and business associates view their job assignments and their outlook about the future. The key to acknowledgement is in one word – sincerity. People can sense when an acknowledgment or statement of praise is sincere and the delivery of that acknowledgement can mean the difference between creating a star performer and a person that simply strives to just “get by.”

The ability to achieve and then continue to develop employee satisfaction is referred to as “leading edge thinking and practice” in the field of management according to sources such as The Harvard Business School Press “Retaining Your Best People”: The Results Driven Manager Series and “The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth”, Stephen P. Robbins, FT Press.

This excerpt from The Psychology of Gratitude by Barbara Fredrickson indicates how important recognition and acknowledgment are in the workplace: “Indirect evidence that positive emotions transform organizations into highly productive, cohesive teams and help them to thrive comes from research that links employee engagement to a wide range of organization outcomes. Research shows that organizations with employees who experience frequent positive emotions have lower employee turnover, more customer loyalty, higher net sales, and in turn more profitable financial outcomes.”

Other useful indicators include the Gallup Q12, a 12 question Employee Engagement Dashsurvey designed to measure employee engagement and link directly to critical performance outcomes, including productivity, employee retention, customer retention, safety and profitability. Variation in response to the Q12 item, “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work” is responsible for a 10% to 20% difference in revenue and productivity, according to the Gallup Management Journal, which also states that employees who report that they're not adequately recognized at work are three times more likely to say they'll quit in the next year.

While adequate pay for services provided and good benefits are important to all top performers, recognition and acknowledgment are greatly undervalued as corporate keepers of the best of them. We don't need to focus so much on adding new benefits or even on more than cost of living raises. Regular, profound, authentic and heartfelt acknowledgment will keep people with you, engaged for years to come. Not only does acknowledgment increase performance and productivity, it makes people want to stretch and grow.

Little attention in the workplace has been paid to a chemical called dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. According to the Gallup Management Journal article, “In Praise of Praising Your Employees,” dopamine stimulates the parts of the brain that process reward and create positive emotions like satisfaction and enjoyment. “Recognition for good work releases dopamine in the brain, which creates feelings of pride and pleasure. Better yet, that dopamine hit cements the knowledge that more of that behavior will create more praise, resulting in another dopamine drench, and so on,” it states in the November, 2006 article.

At many web-based seminars based on the book – The Power of Acknowledgment, IIL Publishing, New York in 2006, author Judy Umlas asks participants how they feel about not being acknowledged for a major project or even for day to day activities, and what actions or behaviors may result from that lack of acknowledgment. Here are some actual responses from one group of participants in a January 16, 2008 webinar:

Laura: de-energized

John: Angry.

Lisa: unmotivated

Jill: expected (I don't expect to receive an acknowledgment)

Chris: why do I even try?

Deepali: very low morale/ dejected - lower performance/ demotivated

Trudy: used. resentful

Barbara: not motivated

Jeff: demoralized

Leah: feels really terrible, and I don't want to put as much effort into future projects

Sharon: used

Tim: I will work the 40 hours I'm required

Patricia: taken advantage of

Edward: unappreciated

Judith: feelings of withdrawal; lonely; shutting down

Steve: unsettled

Dany: what's the use. Why bother?

Jill: Try again

Laura: affects my desire to affirm others

Francisco: I try to motivate myself

Abbie: stripped of enthusiasm for work

Jeff: start looking for another place to work.

Lee: stop trying

Leah: just 40 hours only…not putting in more that is necessary

Barbara: don't give up, the manager will not always be around

Dinesh: Not to take on extra responsibility

Dwight: transfer to another manager

These responses may be somewhat predictable but are jarring and jolting in terms of their impact on an organization. The effect of non-existent acknowledgment or acknowledgment that is insincere can be extreme and can very negatively impact production, customer satisfaction, and the overall willingness to work as a team within an organization.

When the participants were asked how they feel when they ARE deeply acknowledged for their contributions, or for completing the project activities they are engaged in or for managing their day to day essential activities effectively, the responses are quite different:

Joy O'Neill: Appreciated - willing to go all out again

Sharon: Proud

Edward: Appreciated. I will work harder.

Dinesh: Motivated

Dany: Valued, but a little embarrassed.

Dwight: I will put in the extra hours if needed again, willing to take on more.

Chris: I am willing to go the extra mile the next time.

Marilyn Kay: I feel embarrassed because even though I might have done alot there is always a team behind you that has worked also and I want all of them to be acknowledged

Mike: Proud, motivated, a feeling I belong

Lee: Strive to the next level

Steve: Motivated

Jill: Motivated

Lisa: I feel good and want to work harder

Trudy: Satisfied, motivated

Francisco: Happy

Dinesh: Make sure I will contribute more

Judith: My efforts were worth all the time I put in; I would do anything for this person

Peter: Quick - how can I share the credit with my coworkers?

Tim: We're on the same team

Sharon: I feel like I made a difference

Srinivas: Keep up the tempo and work more on results

Laura: Ready & eager to take on the next task

Rhonda: I felt like a valued member of the team

Abbie: I really feel like I have a level of accomplishment to live up to in the future, I will work harder

Debra: Valued

Catherine: Fulfilled

Francisco: I am going to do my best

Barbara: It was a very rewarding feeling

While these responses are expected, they are typical of the responses shared by hundreds of people who attend these webinars and what they are saying in their very open and , sincere words is the solid and undeniable proof of the power of recognition and acknowledgment. Do we want to have a workforce that is engaged, motivated, desirous of challenge and big tasks, or one that is unmotivated, angry, sad and feeling powerless? If the former, then we need to give them what they need – a continuous “dopamine drench” through recognition and acknowledgment. When people are deeply acknowledged by their managers in an authentic and heartfelt way, they are willing to take on more challenging tasks and to grow in order to achieve them. They will want to learn new skills, go for training to make themselves better at what they do, read and learn more. This is what makes star performers into superstars.

Bill Johnson, President and CEO McDonald's Canada states that recognition must be a vital part of your business plan. Dr. Harold Kerzner states that motivating teams has always been a challenge, but that using the principles of acknowledgment (as outlined in the book The Power of Acknowledgment) “will provide you with authentic and powerful techniques for maximizing the potential of your team.”

From verbal praise, to written emails to a team member's boss, to both informal and formal rewards and recognition, the tools are out there and can be used -- cheaply, easily, frequently in a heartfelt and authentic way. This will have a great effect on the people working there, and will transform or solidify a corporate culture that develops and retains its best people.

Leaders are aware of the significance of making a positive connection with their teams or workforce. In a study by the Society of Human Resource Management – The Future of the HR Profession, outstanding HR leaders “stay in touch with the workforce and understand drivers of employee commitment and performance.” Clearly there is need to understand what motivates employees at all levels within an organization. This understanding of motivating factors and employee interests is a key part of managing “human capital.” Dr. Jac Fitz-enz in his article Measuring, Tracking, and Benchmarking the ROI of Human Capital, Harvard Business School Press, stresses the significant investment by many companies in employee development, creating talent, developing knowledge, and training programs and the cost of employee turnover. He states that managing human capital effectively will help organizations execute their strategic plans. This is just another indication that an effective, enterprise wide acknowledgment “culture” will make a difference in how employees view their companies and how they assess their value to the company and their level of appreciation.

Senior executives, managers, supervisors, and other people in organizational leadership positions should be asking some important questions of their employees (especially those employees who are considered to be at the “top” level). Sharon Jordan-Evans, co-author with Beverly Kaye of Love ‘Em or Lose “Em: Getting Good People to Stay, Berrett- Koecher Publishers inc., 2002, suggest that managers and executives ask the following questions – What keeps you here?, What kinds of things do you want next in your career. They emphasize the importance of respect, energizing people, supporting growth, and a friendly environment. The message here is to treasure your employees and associates. To accomplish this you have to demonstrate through your actions and behavior that you truly value them. Sincere acknowledgement is the answer.

Another important item to keep in mind is this quote from the book- The Truth About Managing People, Stephen P. Robbins, FT Press; “No matter how motivated an employee is, his or her performance is going to suffer if there isn't a supportive environment.”

People need to see that their leaders support them. Not only by providing the right technology to do the job, a pleasant work environment, the required training and tools, and the appropriate level of supervision. Support can be demonstrated by the occasional sincere recognition for work accomplished. An email note copied to the person's manager, a card, or a small reward will be reciprocated in levels far above the effort to deliver the acknowledgment.

Amazing results have been reported by corporate executives using the 7 Principles of Acknowledgment explained in the book The Power Of Acknowledgment, Judith W. Umlas, IIL Publishing and other related material. One person who participated in one of the webinars about the subject tried applying the idea of being able to find something to acknowledge someone for who is challenging at work. Here is what she recounted:

I'm always excited at a project kickoff - the hopefulness and the initial enthusiasm about the project always puts me in a good mood. But on this day, my kickoff happiness was tempered when I realized a certain person was assigned to my team: Jim was my technical lead, and I was grouchy about it. I walked away from the kickoff mumbling to myself about how I would have to put up with this guy's negative comments - he never had a positive thing to say about anything. At every meeting, he would interject with statements like, “No, that won't work,” or “You will never complete that on time,” and to be honest, he just irritated me. I decided to sit down and have a good talk with myself - this guy was on my team, and no amount of whining or wrangling was going to get me a new technical lead, so I had to just deal with it.

About that time, I remembered some of the concepts I read in Judy's book: I remembered that acknowledging someone could change their attitude, and I thought that doing something different might change the dynamics of the situation. In our next team meeting, Jim did his usual - he shot down every idea, and ridiculed every deadline we set, and as usual everyone ignored him and kept talking about our project. But, this time, I stopped and took a breath, and said, “Jim, can you tell us more about why you don't think we can do this?” He looked shocked. The whole team stopped talking and turned to him - I said, “Go ahead, Jim, we're interested…” He was taken aback - he became reddened in the face a bit, but actually put his thoughts together and made a very logical argument about a point we had missed. I said, “Wow, I'm glad you pointed that out, Jim, I totally missed it. Could I ask you to take that one step further and help us understand what we should do to resolve the issue?” He said he would have to think about it, which, by the way, was fine with me, because he didn't speak for the rest of the meeting!

Later, I stopped by his desk to discuss the issue more - I needed a risk mitigation plan for the issue he uncovered. I started the conversation by thanking him for discovering this issue - after all, had we not addressed it, the project could have been in trouble. He was so disoriented by now, he didn't know how to respond, but I expected that - Judy reminds us in her book that some people cannot accept the acknowledgement we give, so I wasn't put off by his confusion. Some time later, he came up with some ideas about handling the issue, and actually experimented with some of the solutions to understand what might work - he did excellent work, but no one ever knew it because of his negative approach.

Over the course of the project, I kept quizzing him about possible problems and solutions and praised him privately for being my “failure analyst.” I pointed out to him that it is a great and essential skill to see the weaknesses in a plan - I have a tendency to leap first and look later, so his skepticism kept me out of trouble more than once. After that, he took an active role in project meetings, even to the point of leading some meetings to analyze issues. At the end of the project, I made a special trip over to his desk to say thanks again for his overall efforts, and he told me something so interesting - he said, “You are the only person who listened to me - everyone always ignored me, but now I know I have something important to say.” That statement knocked my socks off…I'm not a great people person, but I think in this case, a simple acknowledgement formed a good and productive relationship with someone who provided a key need to the team! Thanks Judy!!!

Trudy Patterson, Computer Associates

This is just one example of how acknowledgment can change a team's performance or that of an entire organization. Acknowledgment opens doors and takes people to higher and higher levels of achievement. It creates an environment of trust and loyalty. In the previous example, the acknowledgement was directed towards a person who was being viewed as a negative, blocking type of individual. The acknowledgement was sincere, to the point, and opened up a dialog that significantly changed the probability of success for the project and also raised the self esteem of an individual who believed that people did not care about his point of view.

Sometimes the results occur outside the corporate environment, but are nonetheless, just as powerfull. For example, just after reading through the book at an airport, Shakir Zuberi, President of Project-Management International, missed a connecting flight from New York City to Denver, along with many other people. “I experienced first hand ‘the power of acknowledgment,’ he stated. “People were mad, frustrated and started a shouting match at the United Airlines service desk. When my turn came, I acknowledged the agent's hard work, sense of service and her efforts to get us out of a bad situation. I immediately saw a look of surprise on her face, an easing of tensions and a smile not only in my agent but also in others working next to her…Acknowledgment appears to be a fundamental human element in our relationships with one another.


Acknowledgement is an important part of everyone's daily lives. Effective leaders know this and understand its power. Consider the following situations an questions and you will understand why acknowledgment is so important.

  • Imagine never receiving praise, recognition or acknowledgement for anything you do. How would life be different?
  • How do you feel when someone takes the time to acknowledge something you have accomplished or a specific behavior you have displayed?
  • How do you feel when you acknowledge someone? What do you notice about that person?
  • Think of a specific example of an acknowledgment you delivered to someone and think of their response, as well as how it made you feel
  • Think about specific words you would use to describe how you would feel if you are not acknowledged by your project leader for something you consider very important that you accomplished. What behavioral responses would result?
  • Think about specific words you would use to describe how you would feel if you are deeply acknowledged by your project leader for something important that you have accomplished at work. What behavioral actions/reactions would occur as a result?
  • Think about your capability as a leader to begin to repair the world, one person at a time, using the power of acknowledgment.

There is no question that acknowledgement makes a difference when dealing with people in the work environment or in the family and social environment. Price Waterhouse Cooper's Australian business introduced an initiative called High Performance Culture in 2004 that was designed to drive the organization's values into everyday business. In this program top management would walk through the halls ringing bells to publicly acknowledge high performers. The ringing of bells may work in some places but many people prefer a more personal and less noticeable form of acknowledgement. Whatever the approach, acknowledgment makes a difference and every leader should make a very strong effort to develop an acknowledgment policy that will be received as sincere, thoughtful, and motivating. There are usually many stars in any organization. Some are just beginning to shine and others have established themselves as value adding contributors to the organization's goals. There are others who could be stars but have not received the encouragement and recognition they need to take the next step. The leadership of any organization should look for ways to nurture these stars and stars to be and provide opportunity for growth and continued satisfaction from a business as well as personal point of view. Acknowledgment is certainly a major part of an organizations reward and recognition program and can make the difference between retaining a star and losing one to another organization.

Harvard Business School Press (2006) Retaining Your Best People, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, USA

Kaye, B. L and Jordan – Evans, S (2002) Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em – Getting Good People to Stay, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Franscisco, USA

Robbins, S.P. (2003) The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But The Truth, Prentice Hall PTR, Upper Saddle River New Jersey

Umlas, J. W. (2006) The Power Of Acknowledgment, New York Publication: IIL Publishing

Frank P. Saladis, PMP, Judith W. Umlas,
2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, North America



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