Authentic Acknowledgement and the Roots of Engagement

With employee engagement becoming the prime focus of today’s “Talent Management Business Partners” among many large corporations, the question of what truly drives engagement comes to the fore. It’s widely accepted that acknowledgement is a key facilitator of engaged employees. Being thanked for one’s work is a good start. Being recognized as one of the contributors to a project’s success is a useful follow-on. In fact, we see this all the time in formal, staged political events when the leader specifically names some otherwise obscure individual who has supposedly contributed a good idea, inspiration, or venue to the good fight being celebrated at the podium.(This has become a standard trope in American politics, for instance.)

It makes sense, then, that the opposite should prove to foster disengagement and demotivation: not being explicitly recognized for one’s contribution. (And, here I’m not considering the egregious and borderline sociopathic behaviour of a manager claiming personal credit for one of their underling’s work.) Indeed, fostering an environment of non-appreciation clearly does nothing for boosting morale, enthusiasm, and commitment. But there is an act of omission that proves to be even worse for undermining motivation and fomenting toxic dissatisfaction, so-called active disengagement.

Imagine that you’ve worked long hours developing and delivering a great analysis that potentially has significant strategic importance for the business. You’ve created a dynamite presentation and won the kudos and plaudits of key decision makers in the organization. Acknowledgement emails flow in through the next day from everyone concerned. And then…

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Not a single thing changes as a result of your fantastic effort. The recommendations – widely acknowledged as being tremendously insightful and useful – languish and people’s attention move on to the next fire drill. How do you feel?

Authentic acknowledgement is the basis upon which leaders create trust and enable true engagement. That authenticity necessarily requires demonstrable appreciation. To feel demonstrably appreciated – as opposed to receiving some euphemistic synonym of simply being thanked – individuals must be able to viscerally perceive the results of their effort in affecting the course of the enterprise. In other words, it’s all about the effect—if what I do has a perceptible effect, I know that what I’ve done has value, and therefore I feel valued. Feeling valued (which, according to Valence Theory is the Economic-ba relationship) is the effect of authentic acknowledgement, and therefore is the true driver of employee engagement.

Bottom line: If you want truly engaged employees – and believe me, you do – ensure that what you ask of them demonstrably shows up in the strategy and tactics of your business.

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