“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval, than under a spirit of criticism.” — Charles Schwab, legendary steel industry pioneer

It has been said that there are only two types of people who thrive on being recognized for their achievements: men and women. (I guess that covers most of us!) Reflecting on a life of pioneering work, 19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James said, “I now perceive one immense omission in my psychology – the deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Effective leaders understand the power of sincere recognition, genuine appreciation, and celebration. These are what provide the atmosphere of encouragement that develops confidence and builds on strengths. This encouragement needn’t come from the leader. It can be just as meaningful coming from peers, customers, team members, and other partners. But it’s the leader who sets the emotional tone and atmosphere for recognition, appreciation and celebration in his or her organization.

Recognition, appreciation, and celebration continually show up near the top of most lists of motivational factors. In an article entitled “Rethinking Rewards,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Andrew Lebby of The Performance Group reports, “Year after year we ask employees what motivates them, and year after year they reply (in order of priority):

  • A sense of accomplishment in performing the work itself
  • Recognition from peers and top management
  • Career advancement
  • Management support
  • Salary

“All leadership is appreciative leadership. It’s the capacity to see the best in the world around us, in our colleagues, and in the groups we are trying to lead.” — David Cooperrider, Professor, Case Western Reserve University

Most of us know intuitively whether someone is being a genuine leader, or is simply “doing their leadership thing.” One of the major indicators is how much we feel that person cares about us and our opinions. In my experience, there are hundreds of little ways to tell how much managers care about the people in their organization. Do they use disparaging or objectifying language? Do they involve people in decisions which affect them? Do they try to make the workplace as healthy, safe, and pleasant as possible? Do they ensure that managers are well trained and held accountable for the leadership they provide? Do they openly share “confidential” information? Do they actively practice servant-leadership? Do they individualize rather than generalize? Finally – and this is one of the biggies – do managers ask for, carefully listen to, and act on input from everyone throughout their organization?

Too often managers think they’re showing that they care by giving people patronizing pats on the head. These may take the form of goodies such as gifts, parties, long-service trinkets, trivial newsletters, or “royal visits” (occasional “touring of the troops” with much bowing and scraping). Not that these things are necessarily bad. Like anything, they are neither bad nor good in themselves, but in how they’re used. When they substitute for treating people as respected and highly valuable partners, they increase cynicism and widen the we/they gap between management and people on the front lines.

One study of U.S. business school graduates shows that a growing number – it’s now over half – are turning down higher-paying jobs for those that offer more room for personal growth. But too often personal growth is left completely up to the individual. Many organizations do a poor job of helping people grow. In a survey of 13,000 managers, only three percent strongly agreed that their companies were good at developing people!

Conventional wisdom is that management is getting things done through people. Strong leaders do that well. But they go further. Strong leaders coach and develop people through their work. Sometimes that means helping people do what they don’t want to do so they can be the person they want to be.