When high praise isn't so high

How do you feel when someone acknowledges you?

How often does someone let you know that they see you, that you are getting the results that you want, and notice what it must have taken you to achieve it? If you're like many people, it can feel that you hear more from others when you make mistakes.

In an ancient parable, the owner of a field tells the servants not to uproot the weeds, ”because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.”

Plenty of people will criticize and worry about all the “weeds”. You may be surprised to know that tending to the “wheat” yields far better results. Like a great coach, you can be the leader or the parent who notices the growing crop, tends it, and waters it.

What is acknowledgment?

Acknowledgment could be described as simply noticing people's efforts, positive intentions, and results and telling them.

When we acknowledge the efforts and intentions and results of others, they tend to continue. As leaders, our objective is to hold the highest possible potential for people and notice them growing toward it.

When you want to create a positive, trusting relationship with a person on your team, part of that is making sure that they know that you are actively looking to catch them doing their best. As a leader, your simple act of believing in someone, even when they cannot believe in themselves, helps that person to grow.

We all crave to be noticed—the technical coaching term is “acknowledged”—and your team members are no exception. We like to be enthusiastically noticed when we do well, and we like empathetic noticing when we’re feeling unsure. Taking the time to acknowledge who the person is and their value-add to the team reaps its rewards in spades.

You can acknowledge people even when their results were not successful. Many times some of the best lessons come from what did not work out well. As a leader, you can acknowledge what it took to take action, what lessons were learned, and how it will now support the person to grow and develop even further. That means you acknowledge all the steps the person is taking from beginning to end.

"The child does not begin to fall until she becomes seriously interested in walking, until she actually begins learning. Falling is thus more an indication of learning than a sign of failure." - Polly Berrien Berends

Acknowledgment is NOT praise - what's the difference?

Consider the difference between these sentences:

- I love your report. You did a good job! [This is PRAISE, and it puts me in the judge’s seat.]

- I noticed you put a lot of thought and time into that report. I’m guessing you were pretty pleased with it? [This is ACKNOWLEDGMENT, and it focuses on the person’s attributes and feelings.]

Can you see how acknowledgment is different than giving a compliment to someone? When we give a compliment, it is about us. For example, if I say, “I like your dress,” I am simply saying I approve of what you are wearing because it pleases me. 

When I notice or acknowledge someone, it removes me from the picture, and instead, the situation is completely about the other person and their attributes. If I say, “I notice that you take the time to add beauty and color to your presentations. I wonder what’s important to you about that?”

You are probably already starting to think about how acknowledging your team members can be of great benefit in those situations you have in mind.

Praise and criticism are actually two sides of the same coin - it's a way of taking someone else's attention from what they love and how they are learning and growing. Instead, praise and criticism get them to focus on what makes me happy or upset.

Consider noticing and acknowledging the other person instead--you will surely get to know them better, and you'll both find yourselves happier with the results.

With great love,


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