A Different View of the Power of Acknowledgment

by Dr. Harold Kerzner

There are several ways to apply the power of acknowledgment (POA). Organizations are always looking for new ways to get employees to produce more work, in less time, and hopefully with a higher level of quality. The challenge that executives face is how to acknowledge the efforts of one person without alienating the feelings of others to the point where the total work effort is diminished rather than increased. Perhaps a better approach would be to look for ways to acknowledge groups of people using non-monetary rather than financial incentives.

This falls under Principle #4 as stated by Judy Umlas:[1]

Recognizing good work leads to high energy, great feelings, high-quality performance and terrific results.

As an example of a success story, a vice president wanted to use POA to improve the performance of his functional organization. At his weekly staff meeting with his functional managers, he stated that, at future staff meetings, he wanted each manager to give him the names of one or two individuals from their functional group that performed very well during the past week. He would then send them a brief (standardized) letter of appreciation accompanied by a small token, the size of a poker chip, that could be exchanged in the company’s cafeteria for an ice cream cone (or equally priced desert).

In the next week’s staff meeting, only a few functional managers came prepared with names. The vice president was surprised and asked everyone, “Are you telling me that none of the workers in your functional groups did anything really well and beyond your expectations in the past seven days?” He not only seemed surprised, but sincerely disappointed as well. He had been sincerely seeking to highlight the stories and the actions of those who really tried to go above and beyond, and not just do the job. His intention to show appreciation of these people had been great, but he had not gotten it across to his team the first time.  The functional managers now understood that this was not a game and gave the request more thoughtful consideration at the next meeting. In fact, they started to come prepared with names at each staff meeting. What happened next was quite remarkable.

The employees that received the tokens realized that the token was a symbol of acknowledgment and appreciation. If they took the token to the cafeteria and exchanged it for an ice cream cone, then the appreciation vanished once the cone was devoured.

The employees found a better alternative. They permanently mounted each token on the bulletin board in their office for everyone to see. Now, the tokens became a life-time symbol of appreciation. The workers began to compete with one another to see who could collect the most tokens. Workers would then walk into the offices of their colleagues to see how many tokens they had accumulated. Bragging rights became important to the point where it favorably affected performance.

The results were much better than even the vice president had hoped for. Performance was improving significantly and not many tokens were being exchanged for ice cream cones. The workers viewed their collection of tokens as lifetime rather than one-time symbols of acknowledgment and appreciation.