How to Help a Leader Who’s Not a Good Recognizer

Not all leaders are good at giving recognition.

It takes a certain person to rise up the ranks and become a senior leader in an organization. Some have exceptional interpersonal skills and enjoy being with people and are good at interacting with others. There are others who became leaders because of their exceptional skills or expertise in various administrative and professional areas.

However, giving meaningful and effective recognition is a competency skill all leaders should develop even if they don’t see recognition as important. A Quantum Workplace study on 7 Employee Engagement Strategies found only 11.8% of organizational representatives put employee recognition as a top people priority.

Your role as a leader of recognition is to create better leadership awareness of the importance of employee recognition. Help your leaders know how to deal with the reality that happens when employees do not feel recognized.

Follow these six strategies and practices for helping your leaders know what to do when employees feel unrecognized and help them become better recognizers.

1. Make it psychologically safe to give leaders feedback––both positive and negative.

First, employees need to feel comfortable in sharing with their leaders what it’s like when no one recognizes them or their work contributions.

Consider the findings of one employee engagement trend report that “almost 90 percent of hostile employees felt they weren’t receiving adequate praise from senior leadership while 72 percent felt unrecognized by their direct managers.”

Now, how to inform your leaders before a lack of recognition gets to a disengaging or hostile level.

Leaders must commit to developing a psychologically safe work environment where candid feedback on leader behaviors is both an acceptable and expected practice. There should never be negative repercussions when employees speak up and express their disappointment over neglected or inappropriate recognition received.

2. Request that leaders be fully present when receiving feedback and to remove all distractions. 

You are your leader’s recognition coach. You need to set the stage with each leader you have to deal with.

Receiving feedback from employees requires your leaders to be attentive. They must be fully present when meeting with you and/or employees. Always recommend that they forward phone calls if meeting in their office, that they turn off their mobile phones, and to look at this feedback opportunity as a priority.

No one will ever pretend that receiving feedback from others about their actions or performance is exactly fun. But, if your leaders can take this in stride as a growth opportunity, they will improve employee engagement and become better recognizers.

3. Coach leaders to gain specific recognition insights through asking them behavioral style questions.

Leaders needing the most feedback will probably be the ones who are blind or unaware of their failings in not expressing recognition well to the staff they associate with.

As you receive examples of failed recognition attempts or the lack of recognition, develop a detailed scenario report with specific information on what happened, or didn’t happen.

Depending on the situation and context, you can meet with a senior leader with the scenario description in hand and some prepared questions to guide you. Questions will help guide leaders to reflect and recall the situation better. Other questions will help stimulate recommendations for improvement based on the situation. Look at these examples to what you might ask.

  • What do you hear about the lack of recognition this employee is feeling from this scenario I shared?
  • How often do you think you pass by employees in the hallway without acknowledging them?
  • What can you do to build better positive relationships with employees?

4. Teach your leaders how to receive feedback gracefully.

A part of the psychologically safe workplace is helping leaders with how they can emotionally receive negative feedback about their actions without being reactive. Sometimes, it’s tough to grin and bare it with reports of your flaws. Leaders must still acknowledge their feelings and not bury them. Not an easy process.

However, one strategy is not to debate the comments and feedback they receive from staff and not to become defensive. Remember, the feelings expressed by employees are real to them and are their perceptions of the recognition experience. Suggest leaders accept the feedback as a gift to learn from and, in whatever small way they can, to do something about right away!

5. Make a plan to grow and develop recognition skills.

Receiving feedback with no intent to change or grow is a useless exercise.

Carol Dweck, noted Stanford psychologist, has studied the concept of having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset in learning and development. Similarly, leaders must be open to becoming better recognizersthrough using effective recognition practices. Leaders can still change and improve recognition behaviors.

Leaders should embrace the opportunity to develop recognition skills as they learn from the feedback they receive. Becoming a better recognizer takes effort and sometimes learning from mistakes along the way.

Have each leader you’re working with use a simple goal and plan document, or perhaps send them a simple email template, and solicit what your leader will do to improve their recognition giving. Ask them to be specific in describing the action or behavior they plan to develop. Request they set a realistic frequency of implementation and timeframe to practice so they can measure their performance.

They can self-report on how well they did and what they learned from the exercise. Be sure to ask them what they noticed from the reaction of employees.

6. Reporting back is essential for leadership growth.

I have always loved the quote from Thomas S. Monson, which says, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measuredand reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”

Leaders must be heldaccountable for their performance and actions––like consistently giving deserved and meaningful recognition to employees. Have leaders report back to you, even informally, on how they are doing on their action plan to get better at recognition giving.

Be prepared to ask leaders good coaching questions to encourage reflection and dialogue. Ask questions like Michael Bungay Stanier has in his book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. For example:

  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • How can I help?
  • What was most useful for you?

Few leaders plan to be lousy recognizers. Fortunately, the ability to give great recognition is a learned skill.

You can be the catalyst for your leaders with helping them learn to give effective recognition as an essential leadership skill.

Recognition Reflection: How do you help your organization’s leaders who are not good at giving recognition become better recognizers?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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