The power of acknowledgement at work

For the last few months I’ve been working with a client organisation that has a strongly hierarchical culture. It’s also typical of many organisations in that the practice of acknowledgement is absent. Outside of giving directions or social talk, the only time a manager speaks to one of his or her employees is to “give them feedback.” And “feedback”, you understand, is always about what’s wrong.

When I arrived I noticed one employee, in particular, starving for acknowledgement.  A man in his late 20s, he was a very gifted employee. No matter what task he was given he would take full responsibility for doing it, and doing it in the way it was meant to be done. When he was involved in the projects I’m leading, I knew I could utterly rely on him.

Now it’s not my job to transform the culture of non-acknowledgement. At least, not officially. But who better than me? I’ve got what you’d call a natural inclination in that direction; in addition, I’ve been highly trained in the power and necessity of acknowledgement through my involvement with Landmark Education.

So from the outset, I started acknowledging this man. And there was so much to acknowledge him for. Each time, there would be the sound I think of as the sound of acknowledgement: a hush, a stillness that descends just before the acknowledgement is given, as if the speaker and listener have entered into a communion.

Each time I would see the man blossom a bit more. And for the last few months our time working together has been a joy.

*****

Three weeks ago, the man put in his notice and yesterday was his last day. In the last few weeks, freed up finally to say what’s there for him, he has told me about his decision, and guess what’s driven it? Yes, the absence of acknowledgement from the organisation and his managers.

So now the organisation has lost this priceless employee. All for want of acknowledgement. He’s now going to give his gifts to another organisation.

*****

Perhaps you’re thinking,

So what did your acknowledgement of him accomplish anyway? It didn’t change his decision to leave.

No, it didn’t change his decision to leave, because the damage had already been done. Yet it did count, and in a most beautiful way.

In a meeting yesterday in front of seven other employees I saw this man get the lesson when, totally unprompted, he stepped up and acknowledged one of the employees who will take over part of his role. Again, there was the unmistakeable hush, and the face of the employee being acknowledged opened and blossomed. Each person in the room got it too.

In that moment, I knew I had made a difference to this man, and through him, to the other employee and those who witnessed it. He will now take acknowledgement with him into his future workplaces.

*****

Image: Taking in the Rye by Kazimir Malevich, 1912

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4 thoughts on “The power of acknowledgement at work

  1. Good for you for recognising and celebrating small victories!

    I agree that acknowledgement is a lost art. At the most toxic place I ever experienced, such a culture of fear pervaded that managers were afraid to acknowledge staff for fear that if later the staff person made a mistake, their judgement might be questioned. It was really bad and created bizarre subcultures.

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