Top Coaching Skill for Leaders: Acknowledging People – by Christi Byerly, CoachHub coach

CoachHub · 9 September 2020 · 7 min read

Acknowledging people is very important for a manager. However, doing it properly is sometimes more difficult than it seems. Our coach Christi Byerly gives us her advice on how to reward your teams in the best possible way.

How do you feel when someone acknowledges you?

How often does someone let you know that they see you, that you are doing well, and notice what it must have taken you to achieve it? Often it seems that you hear more from others when you make mistakes.

In an ancient parable, the owner of a field tells the servants not to uproot the weeds, ”because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.” Plenty of people will criticise and worry about all the “weeds”. You may be surprised to know that tending to the “wheat” yields far better results. You can be the leader who notices the growing crop, tends it, and waters it.

What is acknowledgement?

Acknowledgement could be described as simply noticing people doing things right and telling them. When we acknowledge the good deeds of others, they tend to do more of them. As leaders, our objective is to hold the highest possible potential for people and notice them growing toward it.

When you want to create a positive, trusting relationship with a person on your team, part of that is making sure that they know that you are actively looking to catch them doing their best. As a leader, your simple act of believing in someone, even when they cannot believe in themselves, helps that person to grow. We all crave to be noticed—the technical coaching term is “acknowledged”—and your team members are no exception. We like to be enthusiastically noticed when we do well, and we like empathetic noticing when we’re feeling unsure. Taking the time to acknowledge who the person is and their value-add to the team reaps its rewards in spades.

When to Acknowledge

Acknowledgment comes after the team member has taken action. However, acknowledgment is not just about the action, it is about who the person is being while they are taking action. You can acknowledge people for their values and their purpose in addition to their activity. This positive regards supports them to take the next step with courage, and helps them to build on their strengths.

You can acknowledge people even when their results were not successful. Many times some of the best lessons come from what did not work out well. As a leader, you can acknowledge what it took to take action, what lessons were learned and how it will now support the person to grow and develop even further. That means you acknowledge all the steps the person is taking from beginning to end.

The child does not begin to fall until she becomes seriously interested in walking, until she actually begins learning. Falling is thus more an indication of learning than a sign of failure.
Polly Berrien Berends

How to Acknowledge

The language coaches use for acknowledging someone is simple:

“I want to acknowledge you for….”

If you’re not comfortable with that language yet, you could say, “I noticed that you did …and that means [a positive attribute of the person]” . It is important, when acknowledging someone, to avoid the word “but” after saying something wonderful to them. When acknowledging, sincerely and truthfully, you want to notice the person’s attributes even if it did not produce the desired result.

Acknowledgement is NOT praise

Acknowledgement is, in fact, quite different than handing out warm fuzzies and ‘attaboys’. People around you will begin to learn that your attitude is one of looking for what they would like to have someone notice, without meaning that you are the judge of what is good or bad about the other person.

Consider the difference between these sentences:

  • I love your report. You did a good job! [This puts me in the judge’s seat.]
  • I noticed you put a lot of thought and time into that report. I’m guessing you were pretty pleased with it. [Focuses on the person’s attributes and feelings.]

Can you see how acknowledgment is different than giving a compliment to someone? When we give a compliment, it is about us. For example if I say, “I like your dress,” I am simply saying I approve what you are wearing because it pleases me. My opinion about whether you did well or not is not the issue, the issue is the other person, and how they feel about what they have accomplished. When I notice or acknowledge someone, it removes me from the picture and instead the situation is completely about the other person and their attributes. If I say, “I notice that you take the time to add beauty and color to your presentations. I wonder what’s important to you about that?”

You are probably already starting to think about how acknowledging your team members can be of great benefit in those situations you have in mind.

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Acknowledgment is similar to encouragement, with one difference

A Chinese proverb states: “The participant’s perspectives are clouded while the bystander’s views are clear.”  The difference between acknowledgement and encouragement is verb tense. Acknowledgement occurs after action, whereas encouragement relates to actions in the future.  When you encourage, you continue to hold the other person’s vision of the future up to them and support them to move towards it. Encouragement goes a long way when the person is feeling that things are not working out, or they are not being supported in different areas of their lives.

When we encourage our clients, we say things like:

  • I remember when you pulled through that difficult time last year. I can see how some of that resilience can help you now.
  • I know you, and I’ve seen your strengths. I’m willing to bet that you have some tricks up your sleeve for this one. Good for you! You’re starting to believe you can do it!

CELEBRATION: An important next step after acknowledgement

Celebrating means giving yourself permission to stop for a moment and enjoy what you already have accomplished. It provides the opportunity to stop and take a look back in time and savor the moment.

Many of us are not in the habit of celebrating the small things in life. Most people celebrate special events and major accomplishments. The art of celebrating the small things provides plenty of opportunities to acknowledge the people in our lives who have supported and assisted us in reaching our dreams. Hardly ever does anyone achieve something by themselves. An all important step in goal-setting is celebration. When setting goals, one of the most powerful coaching questions to ask a person is: “How will you celebrate the achievement of this particular goal?”

Creating structures for celebration builds in an automatic way to reward and reflect on the accomplishment(s). To support your team, get into the habit of building in a structure for celebrating. This helps reinforce the concept of taking time to think about and enjoy the progress.

Celebrating can take a variety of forms:

  • Calling a friend to share the accomplishment
  • Keeping a gratitude journal
  • Buying a treat
  • Jumping up and down
  • Taking the day off
  • ….

Each person will have their own ways to celebrate. Some people’s ability to celebrate has become so atrophied that learning how to celebrate is an accomplishment in itself! Find out what it means to celebrate for each of your team members. What are they grateful for and how do they celebrate their achievements? To help your team understand the importance of this structure, and to make it a fun event, have them develop their own celebration list. This list can then serve as a way to create more celebrations as well as remove the overwhelming feeling from trying to think of something immediately.

As a leader, you can also celebrate the person’s success with them. When you recognise how far they have come, you can discuss what it means to the person to have achieved this goal and help them plan their celebration.

You can actually coach effectively by just using acknowledgement, encouragement and celebration. This is a very strong statement, but it’s true. If you simply help a person see and appreciate their strengths, you will empower them to do better. If you acknowledge them when they are operating at their best, then you allow their “best self” to grow. To focus on what is good in their life right now and what they are doing right will often produce significant results, even if you have no other coaching techniques.


Christi A. Byerly
CEO and Director of Training
Awaken Coach Institute

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