Top 5 Essential Recognition Skills for Leaders

You’ll find plenty of positive recognition practices to become a great recognizer in the many posts in this blog, or within chapters in my book Practicing Recognition, that will help you and the leaders in your organization.

Yet those of you who lead your recognition programs and strive to encourage your leaders to be exemplary recognition givers, influencing leaders to do this important skill can be tough. 

I wanted to dig deeper and draw upon the essential skills that leaders need to develop. What might you coach your leaders on that would help them catch the vision? 

  1. Expand your understanding of your positive relationship strength with people.

Everyone looks up to leaders in their organization. They admire and respect them simply for the position they hold and all that they do. People put leaders on a pinnacle, but it doesn’t take much to fall off. 

If you are a leader reading this, realize you had better get a handle on developing a positive relationship with your direct reports, and with every employee you interact with. This means asking good probing and clarifying questions. You need to know the tremendous people you work with, fully understand their jobs that are constantly changing, and appreciate the significant contributions they make every day for the organization. 

Remember that you make a positive influence every time you look an employee in the eye and smile when you pass them by, smile, positively greet them, even using their name when you can. I’ve had employees tell me their negative experiences of senior leaders walking right by them in a hallway and not even looking at them, let alone acknowledge them. Yet, these same leaders are all smiles on stage at an award ceremony. What experience do you leave behind for employees to judge you by? Are you fostering a positive relationship? Do you behave the same on stage and off stage? 

This is important when recognizing people because when you create a positive relationship strength between yourself and employees, your recognition is more highly valued by them, believed, and always appreciated.

2. Become a more astute observer of others, especially when interacting with them.

The leading indicator of effective and meaningful recognition is the number of interactions you have with people. Now, that doesn’t mean counting off the number of people you see in a day. It is all about fully interacting and engaging with people to learn more information and details about their lives and their work.

It is about becoming a careful observer of people in their work, in meetings you have with them, in the one-on-one conversations with staff. How do they appear to you emotionally? Are they concerned or are they happy? Does talking to a leader make them feel anxious or excited? 

When staff see a leader show caring concern for them and the welfare of their family, or they ask open-ended question to find out more about the employee’s work conditions, they see a leader who wants to understand the complete employee experience. 

All leaders need to follow the advice from an oft quoted English nursery rhyme,  

“A wise old owl lived in an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard. 

Why don’t you copy that wise old bird?”

If a leader attunes their observation skills of people and their work, they’ll discover more examples of wonderful actions and behaviors that merit amazing recognition from them. 

3. Understand the rest of the story behind every employee’s amazing contributions. 

Do your leaders know the full story of what goes on in the lives of your employees? What happens before an employee arrives at the job? Who depends on them as a family member? How are they able to do the incredible work they do? What inspires them every day to come to work and perform their very best? 

It may surprise you when you take the time to converse with staff and hear their fascinating stories. Sit down with them in the cafeteria when physical presence is possible. Engage in brief conversations with employees via phone or video conference calls and ask how they achieved a particular accomplishment. Ask them what makes them proud to work with your organization? What disappoints them about the organization? 

Learn the unbelievable tales of how they originally started working with your organization. Find out why they still stick with the organization and what it would take to keep them. 

Now, you have a lot more material to weave into the storytelling when you recognize them. Your recognition becomes about shared memories and experiences. It is real recognition.

4. Learn to adapt and be flexible to suit the needs of people and the situation.

I remember as a leader in a healthcare organization volunteering to come in on the evening shift for some nursing units to make an educational presentation. The first comments out of everyone’s mouth was some reference to the fact that I came in on their shift. And the second comment was that the content I was presenting must be very important. They attended and participated extremely well. 

It’s the same when senior leaders serve breakfast or lunch on employee appreciation days. Or maybe they show up in overalls and get their hands dirty in a humanitarian or corporately sponsored service project.

Leaders must learn to adapt and get out of the boardroom more often than they do.

Leaders need to be flexible and spontaneous during formal award ceremonies. There is always the orchestrated script to adhere to. But sometimes a leader needs to speak from the heart and transfer those positive feelings and emotions they feel for a person into a recognition expression.  

It’s about building in time into their day to reach out and call staff to see how they are doing. Dropping by a workstation to say hello and ask how work on the job is going. And it’s about scheduling in time to write personal notes and thank you cards daily to staff that they are aware of who have made a difference to others. 

Real recognition is rarely planned, so you have to be flexible and swift on your feet to express your pride and appreciation at the drop of a pin. 

5. Develop authenticity in how you live your life so people can always believe you.

Your employees are always watching their leaders and want them to be trustworthy and reliable. There is an unwritten expectation they will be genuine and credible in all they do. Leaders must be honest in all things and demonstrate personal integrity.

That’s why with being recognized employees want to believe every word a leader says as sincere. Leaders have an enormous responsibility to be consistent in all aspects of their lives. 

One employee who told me their senior leader never acknowledged them in the hallway, also shared how the same leader ignored them on the public transportation before and after work. 

It may seem ironic, but the same leader was lousy at recognizing staff.  

Respect leads to Trust. Trust leads to Consistency. Consistency then can lead to Authenticity.

Your recognition should always be respectful of the individuals and everyone involved in an achievement or significant contribution. When you say what you mean and live by that, people can trust you and believe what you say. If you consistently recognize employees across job functions and in all departments, that speaks and shows volumes. 

Recognition Reflection: How do you help your organizational leaders master giving authentic recognition?

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