Cutting edge advances in using a timeless tool, the power of acknowledgment, for immediate and breakthrough results on project teams
Acknowledgment as a tool for transformation is a relatively new application of an age old principle: Let people know what you think they have done well, or that they are representing a corporate value, such as integrity, intelligence, or innovation, and they will swell with pride. Let them know what they have done wrong in a harsh way, and they will shrink back, go into a rage, or even quit. While constructive criticism is essential for a person's growth and improvement, the focus of this presentation is on heartfelt and authentic acknowledgment, which creates great results nearly 100% of the time.
In this paper, the kind of behavior and communication that create transformation and improve relationships on teams are explored. The four C's of acknowledgment are addressed: consciousness, courage, communication, and commitment. A sample case study is utilized to demonstrate these principles. How the seven principles of acknowledgment, based on the book The Power of Acknowledgment, relate to project team building and success are also demonstrated (Umlas, J. W., 2006). Acknowledgment as a key factor in developing employee loyalty and engagement, for improving relationships, and for enhancing self-worth are explored. Virtual teams and cultural differences are also addressed.
This paper addresses acknowledgment as a means of motivating and inspiring project team members and fellow employees, as well as to improve intimate relationships and interactions with the people they connect with on a day-to-day basis. Readers and session attendees will learn to use this tool in an immediately effective way. Much of this presentation is adopted from the author's book and from an article written for the Project Management Institute (PMI) Information Technology & Telecommunications (IT&T) Specific Interest Group newsletter, SIGnal.
What actions would you take if you knew, with absolute certainty, that a simple action you could take every day for no cost and little effort would change your world, and the world at large, dramatically and profoundly for the better? What if this ability is something every person on this planet possesses, yet few people use much if any at all? What if using it regularly would transform your relationship with your husband or wife? What if doing it would make your colleagues at work not be able to do enough for you, and make the office atmosphere vibrant, productive, and alive instead of lethargic, competitive, frustrated, and bored?
All of this is possible, yet most people don't recognize this incredible tool or understand its power. What all of us possess, but most of us don't use often enough, is the power of acknowledgment. Many of us have our reasons for not using it, but these are just excuses, rationalizations that hold us back from achieving powerful, positive results wherever we are or go. I have written a book to help people understand and use a tool that I believe can produce profound and dramatic changes in our intimate circles and far beyond” (Umlas, 2006)
Cutting Edge Advances in Using The Power of Acknowledgment with Project Teams
The author believes that using this tool, acknowledgment – one which is inexpensive, available, simple to use, with no software to install – will help repair and build a better world, one person at a time. It does also, without a doubt, transform teams and team performance from average to outstanding. And the beauty of it is that we all have access to this tool at all times and can use it with all people. Michael E. Case, president and chief executive officer of The Westervelt Company said it succinctly and profoundly, “You are what you acknowledge.”
Why is this statement almost mystical in its simplicity? Because when a team values and expresses its appreciation for its members' commitment, integrity, openness, positive attitude, expertise, knowledge sharing, and listening, that is what the team and even the company becomes and seen as by others. Its core values are brought to light and identified with the team. The team members listen, they don't tolerate poor customer service, and they have a high sense of integrity. Does your company or team have a cranky customer or user? When there is one, the appropriate team member listens – truly listens – to what is being expressed as lacking and will bring the message back to the team. Action will be taken. The customer or user will be communicated with, such as, “We made this improvement based on what you told us about how we fell short.”
What could be more meaningful to a dissatisfied individual than this kind of true listening and subsequent action? Indeed, we are or we become what we acknowledge. It is simply by practicing the true, profound, authentic usage, and delivery of acknowledgments that we can have it as a tool–at all times–that can produce dramatic results in the workplace, on our teams, as well as in our families, our schools, and among our friends.
In the Gallup Management Journal, the article, “In Praise of Praising Your Employees,” states the following: “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 (Robison, J., 2006, November 9).” The effects of acknowledgment are emotional, psychological, and physical. Numerous studies have documented this.
Yet in a Gallup Poll of 1000 workers who were asked, “Apart from monetary reward, did you receive any other type of recognition for your work last year, like a letter of praise or a plaque?” Sixty-one percent said no! Can you believe this? What does that mean for our project teams–those members we are not recognizing and acknowledging for their excellent, above and beyond work and accomplishments–and team performance? In reviewing, The Power of Acknowledgment, Frank P. Saladis, PMP, publisher of allPM.com, the global resource for project managers in more than 100 countries, and senior project management instructor at International Institute for Learning (IIL) said this:
“Acknowledgment of a project team, individually and in a group setting is as important as planning a project. Project team members need recognition and acknowledgment for the work they do and their commitment to success. This concept can put project managers on a fast track to enhancing team performance through reinforcement of principles that we should clearly already know. Acknowledgment is a catalyst for great performance.”
Time and budget constraints, pressure, inevitable conflict, and unforeseeable turns in directions are typical challenges for project management teams. Only the top performing teams are able to navigate through the action issues. What do high performing teams do differently? Building a high-performance team culture requires the establishment of strong partnership among members, team leaders, and stakeholders. By acknowledging each other's behavior and contributions, team members create a bond that strengthens their working relationship and serves as a buffer in times of stress.
Acknowledgments truly transform both the giver and the receiver on a project team. They engender employee loyalty and engagement, improve relationships, and enhance self-worth. These good results are contagious, and the actions of each team member are amplified as the recipient picks up on this idea and spreads the circle wider. Like pebbles in a pond, the ripples radiate farther and farther out, and we see how they continue to spread.
Team leaders and members, who focus on and make it their honor and their duty to exemplify the power of acknowledgment, achieve “predictably unpredictable” and great results. Those of us who are acknowledged find it much easier to acknowledge others. That's the “pay it forward” principle. So let's get to it!
First, I want to make you a promise: This article will be a catalyst for an immediate and effective change in your relationships with others on your team, and the results of this will be profound, energizing, enlivening, revitalizing, and results-oriented.
Upon what can I base this promise? Upon the four C's that embody the principles of this work.
The first C is for consciousness. What can a leader do to establish a high level of consciousness among team members about the value of sincere acknowledgment? He or she can first remind team members that they have very often have acknowledgments in their minds that they don't express, for a variety of reasons that we will discuss below. The leader can then take actions. He or she can:
- Set an example by offering sincere acknowledgments on a regular basis,
- Develop a recognition plan,
- Meet individually with team members and set expectations, and
- Offer support and willingness to listen to ideas.
The second C is for courage. Why do you need this quality to deliver effective, heartfelt, and authentic acknowledgments? Because doing so makes us feel vulnerable – that condition that nearly all humans run away and hide from, even though it is what endears us to one another. What actions can a leader take that will build courage among team members to seek and observe positive, supportive behaviors among team members, and to offer sincere acknowledgments? He or she can:
- Schedule a meeting to discuss the importance of recognition and acknowledgment and offer some suggestions about what to look for,
- Provide suggestions about offering feedback and techniques for offering praise and acknowledgment,
- Acknowledge peers and especially people who may have been adversaries,
- Explain how acknowledgment can break down barriers between people and resolve conflicts, and
- Demonstrate through his or her own awkwardness and embarrassment what a true acknowledgment of a team member looks and feels like. The leader can even say that this is somewhat uncomfortable and embarrassing.
The third C is for communication. How does acknowledgment improve the quality of communication among team members? It:
- Creates a more relaxed and supportive environment,
- Creates trust and respect among team members,
- Creates A positive atmosphere among team members and an expectation that conflict will be minimized, and
- Resolves conflicts among team members who are operating within a culture of appreciation.
The fourth C is for commitment. Once a team leader and the individual members start seeing the results of acknowledging each other, the commitment to continue and expand this practice is almost guaranteed. Acknowledging team members becomes valued as a way of working on projects, and stopping this practice, once the positive results are experienced, becomes too painful to consider. From the leader's perspective, acknowledgment promotes team loyalty and instills a high level of commitment to the team and its objectives. It does so in the following ways::
- Acknowledgment creates a feeling of well-being and a feeling of self worth,
- Appreciation creates a willingness to work with the team even in times of difficulty and high stress. It creates an “acknowledgment chain reaction” in which people see the value of receiving an acknowledgment and make it a practice to acknowledge others, and
- Receiving a sincere acknowledgment from a team leader indicates that the leader is a good listener and is observing the performance of the team and individuals, and it also indicates that the leader has an authentic concern about the well-being of the team.
Here is an example, through a real life case study via Trudy Patterson, PMP, of how consciousness, courage, communication, and commitment transformed a project leader's relationship with a very challenging team member: “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. His face redded a bit, but he 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!”
Acknowledgment is built upon the premise that there is something positive in each person we come in contact with. The key is finding that positive strength or quality, sharing it with the person and encouraging them to use it for the benefit of themselves and others. This can demonstrate how the four C's improve relationships and ultimately drive business results.
Here is a simple quote that really makes the point:
“The basic building block of good teambuilding is for a leader to promote the feeling that every human being is unique and adds value.” - Unknown
In the hope of starting you on the fast track to enhancing project team performance, let's look at the principles that we should already know, but may not be using on a regular basis. With the permission of IIL Publishing, New York, I am using the seven principles used in the author's book, and adapting them slightly to focus directly on teams. The modification of the principles to relate specifically to project teams is in italics:
Principle 1. The world is full of people who deserve to be acknowledged.
It will be easier to acknowledge those who are most important to you on your project teams if you start by practicing your acknowledgment skills on people you don't know very well or at all. Then you will begin making the world a happier place.
Start practicing this principle with everyone you know and some you don't to exercise the acknowledgment “muscle.” Think of the lady in the coffee shop you go to every day, who knows your order and has it ready for you when she sees you coming. Make sure you let her know how much you appreciate this extra service. Think of the security guard in your company who always has a friendly greeting for you, which helps start your day off right. Let him know how much that means to you, as opposed to someone who doesn't even smile. Start practicing the quick acknowledgments (QAs) that help you get used to giving the deeper, more meaningful kind once you are good at this. QAs are a great starting point to build up your ability to giving true acknowledgments that require greater courage, a certain vulnerability and risk-taking. For example, start telling your co-worker, “Nice job,” or “Great report,” or “Thanks for staying late to finish the report,” are relatively easy to deliver and will get you prepared to offer the more deeply felt kind of acknowledgments that also have great impact and results.
Principle 2. Acknowledgement builds trust and intimacy and creates powerful interactions on project teams. Acknowledge the people around you directly and fully, especially those with whom you are in an intimate relationship. What is it about your oldest colleague or subordinate that you want to acknowledge? Look for ways to say how much you value them and then be prepared for miracles!
In preparation for enhancing team performance, you should be practicing giving acknowledgments in all areas of your life: to your family, your friends, and teachers at your children's schools, wherever you go. Make sure that these acknowledgments are “heartfelt” (i.e., from the heart) and authentic. Don't ever use acknowledgments in an insincere way, just to achieve a purpose. People will know this immediately, and will not trust your acknowledgments in the future. Therefore, you must be very careful to do it wholeheartedly. You will feel emotionally moved to varying degrees when you deliver an authentic, heartfelt acknowledgment to anyone. Take note of that emotion as meaning that you have done the job correctly!
Manager Roberto Daniel of Behr Brasil Ltda sets up hour-long meetings with each of his team members, during which they discuss only non work-related interests and issues. They get to know each other in a very different, more intimate way through these meetings. Getting to know each other this way spills over into their work as a team and has a positive impact.
Principle 3. Acknowledgment neutralizes, defuses, deactivates, and reduces the effect of jealousy and envy among project team members!
Acknowledge those you are jealous of, for the very attributes you envy. Watch the envy diminish and the relationship grow stronger as you grow to accept valuable input from the person you were envying.
Jealousy and envy are very common and negative emotions in the workplace, as in the rest of life. I call these toxic emotions, “gut grabbers.” They eat at us, create conflict, and anxiety among team members and can't help but lower the productive output and energy of a team. If we can start acknowledging a team member who is much better than we are for some special skill or capability (such as always see the big picture instead of getting caught up in the minutia), and ask for their assistance in learning to see the bigger picture, your relationship with that person is transformed. Typically, when we acknowledge the people of whom we are jealous, they can't do enough for us. They want to teach us, share their wisdom and expertise and are relieved that you are being so open with your acknowledgement. On some level, they have been aware of your jealousy and much prefer the direct acknowledgment and request for learning.
“Can you help me learn how to do what you are doing so well?” is a magical question to ask of a team member. The result is that the team member can't wait to share their knowledge with you and want to become your coach or our mentor.
Principle 4. Recognizing good work among project team members leads to high energy, great feelings, high-quality performance, and terrific results. Not acknowledging good work causes lethargy, resentment, sorrow, and withdrawal. Recognize and acknowledge good work, wherever you find it. It's not true that people only work hard if they worry whether you value them. Quite the opposite!
When we show that we value our project team members, they only want to perform better. Watch this in action, and be prepared for huge leaps in results and performance. Just again, please make sure you are being authentic. Otherwise this strategy will fail.
Now think of a time when you did something on a project that you knew was outstanding, yet the leader and other team members did not take note of it at all. What did you feel? Did you feel sorrow on a very deep level? Sorrow is not something we normally talk about in the workplace, except if someone has lost a loved one, or a loved one has lost a job, etc. But I maintain that sorrow is an emotion that we all feel when we are not acknowledged for something that we felt was a major contribution to a team effort. The sorrow is deep, real, and extraordinarily painful. As a result, we may start polishing up our resume and actually consider leaving a job we love. We feel resentful, and might vow to ourselves to do less on the next project. We don't put in the extra hours we did previously because. what does it matter anyway? No one is taking notice. So take notice! Acknowledge the extra efforts or brilliance or capabilities of your team members whenever you can, for whatever they do that is special or simply excellent.
As noted on page 234 of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge ((PMI, 2008), “Public recognition of good performance creates positive reinforcement. A good strategy for project managers is to give the team all possible recognition during the life cycle of the project rather than after the project is completed.” I couldn't agree more!
When we speak of project teams, let's not forget virtual teams. We work all over the globe and are all technologically attached, but the human factor is critical and must not be forgotten. So think of ways to acknowledge members of your virtual teams, such as emails, voicemails, instant messages (IMs) and more. There is no reason to withhold sincere praise and acknowledgment, with all of the communications capabilities we possess. Think of the best practices for acknowledgment using the latest in communications tools and techniques. We can all network on how to implement that and gain from the discussion.
Don't forget about cultural differences across global teams as we deliver our acknowledgments. I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation to 800 project managers at a global project management conference in Helsinki, Finland, recently. The following is a recount of what occurred and then appeared on a PMI Blog, “Voices on Project Management”: (Umlas, 2009)
“I recently presented a keynote session on the power of acknowledgment to 800 attendees at a global project management conference in Helsinki, Finland. Before my presentation, I kept hearing project managers say things like: “In Finland you know you are being acknowledged when your boss says, ‘That wasn't too bad a job that you did.’” They told me repeatedly that acknowledgment was just not done in Finland. I'd heard a similar trend in Germany, being acknowledged is when your boss doesn't say anything to you, I was told.
“Now, I'm a perpetually optimistic person who always tells people they can single handedly be agents for dramatic and powerful change, that it only takes one person to start the process. If someone acknowledges others in a heartfelt and authentic way, it will start to catch on, but an entire culture? Could 800 project managers turn a whole culture around? Even I had my doubts.
“During my presentation, I invited everyone to think of one person in their professional life that wanted, needed, and deserved their acknowledgment but to whom they had never fully delivered it. Two brave people stood up and shared their profound and heartfelt acknowledgments of their Finnish bosses, who just happened to be in the audience! Each time I asked both the acknowledger and the acknowledgee to stand. People in the audience were deeply moved and said this kind of exchange never occurs in Finland. Well, it did. Just because something is missing from a culture does not mean that it is not desirable or essential. Acknowledgment is, I believe, a basic human need, no matter what one's cultural conditioning.
”I have since received emails from people in Finland telling me they've started to acknowledgment colleagues and family members in a profound and sincere way and are extremely pleased with the results. So I'm now becoming confident enough to say that yes, one project manager can certainly begin to change a culture.”
Principle 5. Truthful, heartfelt, and deserved acknowledgment always makes a difference, sometimes a profound one, in a project team member's life and work. Rarely given heartfelt acknowledgements have more value than frequent ones with no truth behind them. Sincere praise should not be withheld due to fear of diminishing returns, of appearing inappropriate or out of embarrassment. These obstacles can and should be overcome in order for you and your recipients to reap the tremendous rewards.
There are many reasons why people don't give acknowledgments to team members and to others throughout their lives. I call these the “myths of acknowledgment.” For example, many of us feel that if we praise too often, the acknowledgment will lose its meaning. But if a team leader gave out $100 bills (translate into whatever currency you are using) each time a team member did something special or good, would that make the reward worth any less? I say a resounding, “No!” The same is true of acknowledgments, which are your gold to give to others. In this case, it doesn't cost you anything and you get a great return on it as well. There are other myths that I cover in the book, but, suffice it to say, we find many reasons not to acknowledge others, and most of them come from our own awkwardness or embarrassment, or the thought that people will believe we are being insincere. Just make sure you are being totally sincere, that you are moved by the other person's excellence or magnificence when you are delivering the acknowledgment, and you will be delighted with the results. We all need to overcome the awkwardness. I promise it will get easier over time if you keep practicing and doing it with enthusiasm and gusto.
While nothing can replace the spontaneous, heartfelt, and sincere acknowledgments that we all have in our brains and don't always get to come out of our mouths, it is also important to note successful project completions with celebrations! Doing both will create a real culture of acknowledgment in your specific workplace – so do it all!
Principle 6. It is likely that acknowledgment can improve the emotional and physical health of both the giver and the receiver on project teams. There is already substantial scientific evidence that gratitude and forgiveness help well-being, alertness, and energy, diminish stress and feelings of negativity, and actually boosting the immune system. It is reported that they can even reduce the risk of stroke and heart failure. This research leads us to believe that acknowledging others has similar effects.
There have been numerous studies that show the direct physiological results of positive, emotion-generating actions, such as acknowledgment. We all want our project teams to be as high functioning as possible, with as little stress and physical reactions to stress as we can manage. It has actually been demonstrated that appreciation and other positive emotions lead to alterations in the electrical activity of the heart that, in turn, may be beneficial in the treatment of high blood pressure and in preventing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease. (McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tiller, W.A., Rein, G.., & Watkins, A.D,. 1995) If you need any additional reasons to start acknowledging team members, those are a few! Also, you will feel better physically and emotionally. Try it and you will see the affects. Making a difference in someone's day and in someone's life–and you will know when you are doing that–will change your life for the better.
It is also clear that employees can better tolerate greater amounts of change and resulting stress if there is sustained motivation during rough times and if they know that management values them and their work. Recognition and acknowledgment have a positive impact on the team and on their health!
Principle 7. Practice different ways of getting through to the people on your team you want to acknowledge. Develop an acknowledgment repertoire that will give you the tools to reach out to the people in the different ways that will be the most meaningful to each situation and each person.
Start making lists of your team members' capabilities and what you can acknowledge. One team leader at AT&T had each member of her team write acknowledgments for all of the other team members and send them to each one. They had to find things to acknowledge them for, which they discovered was not hard to do, and she said this made a profound difference in their interactions and performance. While you are at it, do this for your spouse, your children, and your friends, and watch your whole world (and theirs, of course), brighten and come alive.
Remember, the best teamwork and collaboration occurs in environments that acknowledge and reward performance actions and results. Therefore, it is critical for leadership to be committed to acknowledging and rewarding team-focused behavior and team outcomes. So go forth and acknowledge your project team members with heartfelt enthusiasm and authenticity.
Kerzner, H. (2009). Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling. (10th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Maxwell, J. C., (2003). The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork Workbook: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tiller, W.A., Rein, G.., & Watkins, A.D. (1995, November). The effects of emotions on short term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability. American Journal of Cardiology 76 (14). 1089-1093
Project Management Institute. (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.
Umlas, J. W. (2009) Voices on project management Retrieved from http://blogs.pmi.org/blog/voices_on_project_management/
Umlas, J. W. (2006). The Power of Acknowledgment. New York: IIL Publishing.
Umlas, J. W. (2008) Acknowledgment as a Catalyst for Great IT Project Team Performance SIGnal, newsletter of Information Technology & Telecommunications SIG, Fourth Quarter, 2008
© 2009, Judith W. Umlas
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida