Recognition is the Multiplier for Leaders

Many progressive books on leadership correctly identify positive recognition as one of the most powerful means a leader has to influence results. Leaders who take the time to recognize where success is happening on their teams will always out-produce leaders who focus on what is broken or what’s not...

Many progressive books on leadership correctly identify positive recognition as one of the most powerful means a leader has to influence results. Leaders who take the time to recognize where success is happening on their teams will always out-produce leaders who focus on what is broken or what’s not working with their teams. This is Leadership 101, yet many would-be leaders just don’t get it. Often, it is because they themselves have never had an opportunity to work with a leader who had learned the necessary sensitivity and skills to lead positively.

Many underachieving managers think of positive recognition as a “soft skill”. They think it is something that serious business leaders and high-level executives can leave to someone else. Of course they are wrong. Exceptional leaders know how to influence people and action with recognition. They know that positive attention being paid to success is the best way to: (1) make sure their successful people know they are valued, (2) make sure that whatever is succeeding continues, and (3) clearly and strongly influence the behavior of the people who are not succeeding.

As most accomplished leaders know, the ability to recognize success and “catch people doing it right” is at the forefront of all leadership attributes. It is central to the desire to positively reinforce actions that we, as leaders, want to see repeated by the people on our teams. Unenlightened or under-skilled leaders tend to focus on the things that their team members don’t know and the actions they are not taking, thus reinforcing these failing images in the minds of the people they are paid to help.

While it is important to be able to provide constructive comments, it must be balanced with recognition. Any leader can become great at identifying and recognizing the many little actions and decisions that lead to long- term success. They will eventually see the team consistently develop as the leader builds positive, reinforcing, relationships with them.

Let’s discuss what kinds of things we can pay attention to as we help our team build their self-images as improving and succeeding professionals on a high performance team. It is our job to look for what we have come to call “Success Events”. These are the many little and big things that happen along the way when someone is learning to succeed in a particular role. These events break down into three general categories:

  1. Performance Events
  2. Demonstrations of Effort
  3. Exhibitions of Attitude & Commitment

I will list a few “Success Events” of each type so, together, we can get better at seeing these events when they happen and be able to recognize them properly.

Performance Events

This is the easiest area to pay attention to because this category focuses on results. Every kind of successful result can and should be recognized. Results like sales, customer service victories, documented improvements, client commendations, hitting or exceeding desired targets, cost savings, promotions, landmarks, and every other kind of positive result. Most companies make an effort to recognize performance, they just don’t take it far enough. Usually firms only recognize efforts that have direct affect on revenue or customer satisfaction. There are specialists and role-players all over your organizations who do a great job every day and would be sorely missed if they were no longer part of the team, even if they are in a low-profile job.

Does your office have a receptionist that is never late? You would certainly notice if he was constantly late, how about some recognition for reliability? Does your website function perfectly? Someone is responsible for that. Does your customer service department run like clockwork? Who’s responsible for that excellence? How about payroll or HR? Paying attention to solid performance is never a mistake. Look for it on all levels, and do not let people fade into the background just because they have been on the team for a long time.

Effort Events

This is the “cause” part of the cause-and-effect equation in any organization. As leaders, we need to be especially diligent in the attention we pay to efforts that we know will lead to meaningful results. The results are usually obvious to everyone, so being finely tuned into to the efforts our team members are making is a key leadership element.

An important sale, a key improvement, or an exceptional customer interaction is always the result of some unique effort make by a committed individual. It is especially important to recognize quality effort when the result is not clear to everyone. Often teams do not accurately connect the effort and the eventual result. As a leader who is tuned into your team’s effort, you will not let this happen. Other clear examples of sincere effort are participation in office work, team members working on themselves though seminars or continuing education, staying late or arriving early, aiding someone outside their department …anything above and beyond a persons norm can and should be acknowledged. Remember, intelligent effort or an “above-and-beyond” contribution should never go unrecognized.

Attitude & Commitment Events

These are the events and actions that convey a person’s belief in themselves and their commitment to the team. These actions are not always overt or obvious. A leader must have their antennae finely tuned to catch these kinds of recognition opportunities. They are easy to miss and yet they are very important. Some good examples of attitude and commitment events are: taking responsibility for something outside of your department, a very enthusiastic interaction with a client, someone talking to the right influences, written goals, heavy involvement in a meeting, encouraging a friend or relative to apply for a job in your organization, offering up creative ideas, attending a seminar or meeting that requires an investment of time or money and many, many others.

Providing a place where people learn to be excellent means that we must all learn the art of recognition. Here is a timeless (and unbreakable) rule of management: what gets rewarded gets repeated. If that were the only leadership concept you knew, you could succeed as a leader and team developer. Many aspiring leaders do not succeed because they never grasp this rule. Don’t let that be you.


It’s interesting to note that the phrases we all use to describe these positive actions sound like they are actually describing some kind of financial compensation; “paying” attention, “spending” time, “rewarding” with recognition. This is no accident. Recognition is an important part of how we compensate people for their efforts at work. Many studies over the years have shown that most people rate positive recognition as more important than financial compensation when discussing job satisfaction.

Those of us who forget to pay positive attention to their people or “can’t find anything good to say” are, in fact, saying plenty. There are great things going on in your organization. If there’s not, then it’s your job as the leader to create headlines yourself.

Make “paying attention” the number one item on your job description.