Use Recognition For Cultural Transformation

Gratitude Organizational culture


Key Point: Effective transformational leaders use recognition for positive cultural shift in addition to demonstrating care and appreciation. Many leaders think giving recognition is just an obligatory “atta boy,” which is certainly not a very sincere or gratifying premise for the giver or receiver. On the other hand, transformational leaders are wise enough to understand that authentic recognition creates a story, and stories are one of the most powerful elements in driving cultural shift.

Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project wrote this story in a recent blog:

“One morning many years ago, when I was a young reporter at The New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, then the foreign editor, walked by my desk. I hardly knew him, and I was on the phone, but he pulled out a pen and a sheet of paper from a reporter’s pad in his jacket pocket and wrote me this note: “Yours is the best story in the paper today.” That was more than 30 years ago, but the memory of feeling appreciated and inspired still feels bracingly fresh. Still, it was only when I began writing notes of appreciation to others that I realized how rewarding it also is for the sender.”

Now Tony, some 30 years later, remembers FEELING “appreciated and inspired.” So let’s say that this editor took just a few more minutes to tell Tony why it was the best story and the impact it had. Tony and others would then have a very clear description of what made the story “great” and why. It is likely that all would have an even clearer outline as to what made a stand out story in the NYT and how it could be “the best in the paper.” I”ll bet that the reasoning would be repeated by others. In fact it may even become a legendary story of its own… A hypothetical: “The Day Tony ‘s Story Was the Best in the Paper.” (The blog did not indicate whether that actually happened or not).

I am always surprised how much some so-called leaders resist and/or are ambivalent in recognizing others. Some people actually believe giving recognition is a sign of weakness, and will go to people’s heads. They think too much acknowledgment is bad and makes “good” the “enemy of great.” I do believe that generalizations and vague platitudes are not helpful to either the giver or receiver. However, when a leader understands that specific, authentic recognition shows caring consideration along with specific description of desired behavior, it is gratifying. It can even be transformative for all involved.  As an example, if you like people “wowing” customers, openly and specifically recognize and describe the behavior that had such an impact on the customer. I guarantee you others will try and replicate the story. And that’s why recognition, when done well, can be a cultural transformation machine. It is also why generalities, platitudes, and vague applause are often received with the bland response they deserve. There is really nothing to specifically celebrate, repeat, or recognize… When there’s no cultural story, any resulting cultural shift will be unlikely.

Character Moves:

  1. Be specific, transparent and generous in recognizing the desired behavior/performance of others. As an example, if you value “self-accountability” as a trait, then look for many opportunities to recognize when you see the self-accountability you desire. Describe what actually happened and how the act of self-accountability made a positive difference to the customer, company, individual and you. This is telling a story. 
  1. Remember that in addition to reinforcing desired behavior, giving recognition shows you care for the individuals involved. As Schwartz states, “Care cures a host of ills. It’s no surprise that the most powerful influence on people’s engagement at work is the experience of feeling genuinely cared for by their direct supervisor. Feeling valued is critical to our well-being from infancy. What’s less obvious is how satisfying it can be to care for others — and how that can invest even routine jobs with meaning and nobility.” 
  1. Think of yourself as both a caring, appreciative leader AND a cultural transformational leader. Giving recognition allows one to be both sides of this leadership equation.

Cultural recognition in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: This is a tough one, isn’t it? I know for a fact that the proudest recognition I’ve received has often been the most difficult to earn… You know, when that tough-headed son of a bi*ch (teacher, coach, boss) finally acknowledges your efforts. Is that true? Yes. Is that ideal? Nah, but it’s ingrained already. If I may, here’s my recommendation for those tough headed leaders: Find a balance. Look, I’m not going to run home and stamp a gold star on my fridge for a little, everyday “hey, good job.” But that’s enough to keep me pushing. I recommend adding a hard earned phrase to your verbal ammo. Find a special something-something that you DO only say when it’s truly earned. Reserve it for that exceptional job well done. When you use it, explain why. Word will spread… That rare “atta boy” will be sought after, and as soon as anyone hears it, they’ll want to know the story. (Perhaps some of you have received a DWD before).

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis