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Utilizing the power of acknowledgment to motivate and inspire the workforce

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 7:00 a.m. MDT

According to a recent survey by Michelle McQuaid, one of the world's foremost leaders in psychology intervention in the workplace, 65 percent of the American workforce would prefer a better boss to a pay raise. Only 35 percent say a pay raise would make them happy. American business has a problem and we need to address it.

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According to a recent survey by Michelle McQuaid, one of the world’s foremost leaders in positive psychology intervention in the workplace, 65 percent of the American workforce would prefer a better boss to a pay raise. Only 35 percent say a pay raise would make them happy.

With that in mind, if you don’t know Judith W. Umlas, you need to get to know her — and soon. Especially if you want to build greater trust among your employees and create an environment where they can become more engaged. At Lendio, I have the opportunity to interview and speak with many authors and entrepreneurs throughout the year, but I found Judith and her message to business leaders and entrepreneurs to be something special.

In an upcoming book to be released in November, “Grateful Leadership: How to Use the Power of Acknowledgement to Engage, Motivate, and Keep Your Best People,” Umlas talks about how taking the time to acknowledge people (in this case employees) fosters an environment where people can perform at their best and tend to be more engaged in their work. I had the great pleasure of reading a pre-publication manuscript of her upcoming book in addition to speaking with her. I was surprised that I didn’t know quite as much about “acknowledging” people as I thought I did.

You’ll likely discover the same thing.

Over the last 30+ years of my professional career, I’ve experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly — so far as bosses are concerned. Through those experiences, I’ve formed opinions that have shaped they way I try to interact with my colleagues and subordinates.

Sometimes I even believe I’ve been successful.

I’ve always thought that praise needed to be specific and public to be effective. Through my interactions with Judy Umlas — her friends get to call her Judy — I’ve come to appreciate that I didn’t have the entire story. In fact, after speaking with her I remembered an interaction I had with a boss I had a few years back. Let me share it with you.

During the course of an otherwise unrelated conversation (I don’t even remember what we were talking about), my boss said something like, “Ty, you have an influence for good throughout our entire department that extends beyond your team. I’m very glad you’re here.”

Looking back, that “acknowledgement” as Umlas would describe it, was very meaningful to me. Even though it wasn’t specific, it took place in a private conversation, and it was way too touchy-feely for most executives, I have to admit: It really felt good to be appreciated for something other than how well I did my job, for which he regularly “recognized” me. Nevertheless, “acknowledgement” and “recognition” are not the same thing. During the time I worked with him, I found him to be such an inspiring leader, I would have walked over broken glass barefoot if he’d needed me too — that’s an acknowledgement from me to him, by the way.

Lest you think this is all about sensitive leaders coddling overly sensitive employees, you might be interested to know that the U.S. Army consults with Umlas to better train their officers. She shared with me the observation of one Army officer who said, “I’ve been recognized many times over the course of my career, but I have never been acknowledged.”

He then proceeded to share how he thought this was something important enough that the Army should pay attention. Since that time, Umlas has been a regular consultant working with the Army on a number of challenges that face its leaders and its fighting men and women.

I don’t want to put words in Judy Umlas’ mouth, but I think the fact that acknowledgements are more about who you are than what you do is part of what makes them so meaningful. What’s more, “Grateful leaders create a culture of appreciation,” she says.

I’m convinced we have a real leadership crisis in corporate America today. Business schools have done a great job of teaching people how to manage, but we need leaders. We need to stop managing people the same way we manage process or equipment. We need people who can motivate and inspire the workforce to step up and perform at their best. What we have today is a culture where 65 percent of American workers — executives and manual laborers — say they would rather work with a better boss than get a raise. To be honest, that statistic blows my mind, which is one of the reasons it was a topic of discussion in a recent Forbes column.

I think it’s time that more business leaders, in small and large organizations, step up to the plate and quit talking about how culture is important and start putting their money where their mouth is. Business is personal. We should embrace that rather than fight it. It might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s well worth the effort.

What are you doing to acknowledge your employees?

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