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The #1 Secret Tool for Working Better with Anyone

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Somedays, don’t you just wish you had a magic wand that would make everything better with the people you work with?

A magic formula, a secret potion that would make the work go better, and your working relationships run smoother?

Guess what?  There is!

One of the simplest yet most effective practices to improve your working relationships is to acknowledge the people around you. It’s easy, fun and also substantially helps in creating more positive working relationships. 

Though the two are often confused, acknowledgment is different than praise. Praise expresses your opinion, your evaluation of another person’s behavior: thumbs up! Praise sounds like, “Great job, Jose!” and “I like how you did XYZ, Sunita.”

Acknowledgment instead names a specific behavior, quality or attribute and its impact on you, the other person, the project, the team or the organization. Acknowledgment can sound like this:

“Jose, when you led the meeting today, you really made sure everyone got a chance to speak their mind. I think we’re all clearer on next steps now.”

“Sunita, your ability to get us focused on the details really helped the team get more accomplished today.”

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for praise. Praise provides feedback about your opinion about another’s actions: that you liked it. Giving praise isn’t a problem; but know that it only provides a limited amount of information for the other person.

Acknowledgment instead gives specific feedback on the other person’s impact so that they know specifically which of their actions, behaviors or qualities led to a positive and desired outcome. Acknowledgment is a powerful tool at work because you let people know what you value in them and what you want to see repeated.

And through your naming specific behaviors and the positive impact you experienced, you essentially hold up a mirror for the other person and allow them to learn more about themselves through your feedback. Using acknowledgment regularly can lead to more positive interactions with colleagues, reduced conflict at work, as well as improved trust and respect in teams.

Try acknowledgment out yourself: 

1)  Play a game: How many people in a day can you acknowledge?  Challenge yourself.  Your  colleague.  Your boss.  Your spouse.  The clerk at the cash register.  The bus driver.  Your arch enemy.   (And, for extra credit, practice acknowledging yourself.) 

2) Vary it:  How many different ways can you give an acknowledgment?  In a conversation, in a written note, a voice mail, in an email, as part of a speech, at a staff meeting….Try them all.

3) Model it: When you receive an acknowledgement, be sure to model the appropriate response, which is:  “Thank you.”  (Not: “Oh, no, no, really…let me tell you why that isn’t true…” Not:  “OK, now let me tell you something great about you…”  Just: “thank you.”)

4) Learn from it: Notice what happens to you and to the recipients when you start using acknowledgment regularly.  Pay attention to what happens in the moment, as well as later on.  Note that this is a different way of communicating, and can take some practice before it feels entirely natural to either give or receive acknowledgment.

In the Comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on acknowledgment! 

1) What’s the best acknowledgment you’ve ever received? What was the impact on you?

2) When you’ve acknowledged someone at work, what positive impact did you notice on your working relationship?

Hanna Cooper is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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20 Comments

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Profile Photo Christina Smith

Hi Hanna! Great article – interesting, helpful, and practical. I especially need to work on #3 – responding simply with “thank you.” i have been trying to acknowledge my co-workers more often, and it has drastically improved working relationships! So, here’s to keeping at it! 🙂

Profile Photo Hanna Cooper

That’s great, Christina! Yes, practicing the simple “thank you” is a stretch for many of us – so good for you for trying it out! Thanks for sharing your experience with this practice with us!

Karen Baker

The way you described the use of acknowledgement made it sound like something that’s not very hard to do, doesn’t sound fake, and can improve how things go in the office. I’ve never read anything about this topic. I’m surprised this isn’t one of the main things trainers talk about when discussing working with others.

Profile Photo Hanna Cooper

My experience, Karen, is exactly that – that acknowledgment can be a natural and productive way providing positive feedback to others. I think it actually feels more genuine to others than praise! It’s a subtle difference, but an important one – glad if you found this useful and new information.

Federal Employee

Hanna there is a manager here that heaps praise in a way that really rubs me the wrong way. And I appreciate that even done the right way, praise can seem too much when a simple acknowledgement will do.
Lest you think I’m being too picky on the type of praise, it was the over-the-top, “this is really great work, you can really make a name for yourself here and maybe even get an award” from a new-to-the organization manager who knew nothing about me, my 15+ year history with the department, or what motivates me. Oddly, what motivates me is knowing I’m doing something to help my co-workers do their jobs more efficiently. A simple “thank you” is perfect but I’m happy even seeing a smile or a look of relief when I’ve helped them.

Profile Photo Hanna Cooper

It’s a great point that everyone is motivated – and likes to be acknowledged- in different ways. How we want to be acknowledged may not be what is meaningful to someone else, and vice versa. Keeping it simple, specific and direct will make an acknowledgment more relevant. Thanks for your comment!

Pat Brodin

Nice article and certainly a great communications tool… In our teambuilding approach, simple acknowledgements seems to keep everyone engaged and tied into to the project.

Vicky Cook

I was practicing both gratitude and acknowledgement when I was at the gym recently. I expressed my thanks and acknowledgement to one of the cleaning staff in the shower area, stating that I appreciated her thoroughness and reliability in her work. She just lit up like a candle and told me which shower to use for the best water pressure. It’s amazing how this works.

Profile Photo Hanna Cooper

It *is* amazing, isn’t it, Vicki? That’s a great example of how acknowledgment can be used everywhere with great results. I think most people are hungering to be seen, known and appreciated for their contributions. Thanks for sharing your experience here!

Tammy Seleski

Great article! Without knowing it, I have been practicing this as I always try to find something positive to say to co-workers as well as to my consumers and network. It not only makes me feel good to say it, it feels great to hear it!

William Tewelow

Great article Hanna. Most people focus on praise and mere acknowledgement gets overlooked for its more glorified bigger sibling. I like that you brought attention to the simpler but more necessary communication skill.
One of the most powerful acknowledgements that I ever received, albeit contrary to the focus of this article, was a negative acknowledgement; or rather, it was delivered very negatively but it had a positive impact on me. Let me explain. Back in 1980, in the pre-internet and personal computers era, I was in the twelth grade and I was a lousy student. My English compisition teacher had it out for me. I paid little attention in her class. I did not read the assignments and my book reports were all from Cliff Notes at best. My test scores were below passing. I was a failing student and she spent nights readying the noose from which she planned to hang me at the end of class as an example of what not to do in her class. It came down to the final. I had turned nothing in. She would smile as she looked at me sharpening her blade. There was one way out. It required writing something that was epic but it would have to be beyond excellent. And so it happened, that in the final hours of the night before to due date I wrote something that I am proud of to this day even though prior to that I had written nothing. I turned it in placing it on her desk with dark circles under my eyes as I sulked away to my desk in back of the class. The next day in front of the class she castigated me publicly accussing me of plagarism. Refusing to give me a grade and asking me repeatedly over and over again from where I had copied it. Because I refused to give in even an inch konwing I had written it she had no choice but to give me a grade. It was only a B+ because she did not believe that I had written it and she could not bring herself to give me an A. She vowed she would one day find out who wrote that piece. It would never come to pass. I believe she went to her grave trying to find the author of that piece never believing I wrote it. It did not matter. For me it was enough to squeak out a passing grade.
What I took away from the was knowing how much as she hated me and wanted to watch me burn alive upon a pyre. Her redicule and refusal to believe that I had written it meant that I possessed writing skills and that has influenced me ever since.
Sorry, I got a little long winded there.

Profile Photo Hanna Cooper

William, while criticism isn’t typically a strategy recommended to motivate others, it sounds like you found out something about yourself you didn’t know before, which you’ve been able to carry forward in life. A powerful experience, indeed! Thanks for sharing your insights and experience here!

Mark Hammer

As someone who spent a decade studying learning theory, and getting rats and pigeons to do my bidding, I’ll note that one of the basic principles of associative learning is that, if you want to see more of something, one always needs to identify *which* behaviours one wishes to increase the frequency of, by the means and timing of applying reinforcement. One of the perks of being human is that we can not only rely on timing to foster the specificity of what we want more of, but can turn to language to pinpoint what it is we are trying to encourage in the other party.

At the same time, from the human perspective, vague praise is actually not all that encouraging. Indeed, not knowing what specific efforts will be most effective and appreciated can actually be frustrating, rather than encouraging. What *exactly* did you want more of? This? That?

I’ve droned on here too many times about the manner in which the term “employee engagement” gets bantered about without any deep understanding of how employees actually tick. What any person thrives on is a sense of “justified effort”. As employee, or peer collaborator, what I want at all times is a sense that whatever I think is needed, based on what I was led to believe, and am attempting to deliver, is worth my while busting my hump about. That is the core of engagement. When I feel my contribution, and the effort that entailed, is “justified”, then that keeps me stoked about participating in the project, task, role.
What Hanna has termed “acknowledgement” is often the heart and soul of “engagement”. For some folks, that acknowledgement comes in the form of money, awards, and such. And I accept that. But for a great many, it comes in the form of simply, and clearly, pointing out what they did that was really helpful. I don’t know anyone who does not respond to that.