The Most Profound Form of Recognition

We have previously suggested that recognition is, at the most fundamental level, an acknowledgement of the worth of a human being. But how can we tell if someone really values us? What demonstrates their regard? What are its tangible, outward manifestations?

When asked this question in workshops, participants often say things like “they seek me out,” “they spend time with me,” “they share thoughts and ideas with me,” “they ask my opinions,” “they listen with real interest.”

The behaviors they describe shed light on a fundamental truth of human interaction: that involvement is perhaps the most profound form of recognition one human being can give another.

You can applaud your children’s intelligence or maturity, but if you do not involve them in decisions affecting the family—buying a new house, moving to a new city—that praise rings hollow.

You can tell your wife you love her, but if you never seek her thoughts or opinions, she will not feel valued. Involvement is one of the clearest and most immediate ways to acknowledge the worth of another human being.

Expressing appreciation for efforts and thanking people for the work they do is extremely important. But words alone can only go so far. Sharing information, discussing ideas, or soliciting input demonstrates regard in a way that few other leadership actions can.

Involvement communicates an appreciation for talents and contributions by actions, and not just words alone. It shows that you value people’s capacity to think, not just their capacity to work. And that is a message that can transform a workplace.

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Involvement: Path to Increased Ownership

Countless leaders seek to strengthen ownership and personal responsibility for organizational initiatives in their workplace. What many don’t realize is that involving employees  in decision-making processes can be a powerful way to build such support.

We once worked with a fire chief who had been budgeted money to buy a new truck. He was looking through a catalogue one day, trying to decide what to order f0r the station, when one of his men dropped by and asked what he was doing.

When the chief explained the purchase, the man dropped what he was doing and immediately called the rest of the station to come take a look. Within moments the small office was crowded with men flipping through the catalogue and enthusiastically discussing the merits and drawbacks of various options.

When the truck arrived, it was the pride of the station. The men cleaned it, cared for it, and talked it up to anyone who would listen.

The chief’s counterparts at the city’s three other stations, however, told a very different story.

Their men, they said, roundly disliked the recent purchases. They showed little if any gratitude for the new vehicles and grumbled incessantly about everything that was “wrong” with them. One of the chiefs went so far as to say he sometimes wished he had never bought a new truck at all.

The chief was surprised and somewhat puzzled by the great difference in response and reaction.  But the kicker, he later told us, was that the four vehicles were so comparable in features as to be almost indistinguishable from one another.

The four stations had, in effect, purchased the same truck. But where the chief’s men had been involved in the decision-making process, the others had simply been informed of a decision made by a superior who had not bothered to seek their input or opinions.

That simple act of involvement turned out to be the difference between employees who were proud and excited and employees who were disgruntled and resentful. And in this, the chief experienced firsthand what research has shown time and again: that the act of involving people in the decision-making process builds ownership of decisions and motivation to support them.

Leaders often say people resist change, but this is not quite true. As a general rule human beings do not resist change, we resist being changed. And the ownership that results from involvement can be a key difference between the two.

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Unity, Discord, and the Reality of Human Nature

If it is in fact true that organizational performance rises with growing levels of agreement, collaboration, reciprocity and shared vision, why do leaders accept significant (and largely avoidable) costs of disunity? 

Much has to do with widespread below-the-line beliefs that disunity is just the way things are.

“It’s human nature,” clients have again and again suggested in our consulting work, unwittingly giving voice to bedrock assumptions about the human condition. “People fight. They gossip. They clash. There’s nothing to be done about it.”

Unity, in this view, goes against fundamental realities of psychological makeup.

But is this true? Is disunity an inescapable feature of human nature?

It’s certainly true that disunity is not lacking in the workplace. It can be seen everywhere. Most of us have lived a lifetime in its churning waters.

Yet highly unified organizations do exist in the world, organizations in which collaboration, mutual assistance, and commonality of vision are the norm, not the exception.

And the fact that their facilities can be visited, their processes studied and documented, suggests that disunity is not an immutable law of nature, like gravity. Rather, it a choice organizations make – even if only implicitly and unconsciously – and is therefore one they can choose to not make.

Imagine an organization in which departments go out of their way to help one another. An organization in which all individuals make a point of placing the welfare of the whole organization above their personal concerns. An organization in which the success of any one person, office, or division is celebrated as the success of all.

Such organizations can be found. They may be  rare. They may be challenging to create. But the fact that they exist at all – and that their culture stems from connscious, concerted, and sustained effort, as opposed to the happy accident of circumstance – stands as testament to the fact that disunity and discord are not inescapable facts of life.

The unity organizations can establish if they make it a priority is far more than what many leaders believe is possible. A key question facing all leaders, then, is the degree to which they are prepared to make organizational unity an explicit and operational priority.

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Guest Blog: Leadership for the Solo Entrepreneur?

Recently, I was lucky enough to host a book club discussion for Hanging the Mirror.

I was immediately drawn to this book because, in my work as a consultant to small business owners, I feel like the biggest problem they face is not access to smart strategies or good workers.  The most pressing problem is a lack of self reflection within their business.

So often, I work with clients who are quick to point fingers to external forces that impact their business.  What’s always missing is a sense of personal responsibility for the choices they make in their business.

The group discussing the book was made up of small business owners including some solo-entrepreneurs with no staff.

The most divisive issue that emerged during the discussion was whether or not a book on leadership was relevant to someone who doesn’t have any staff.  Do you need to acquire leadership skills if you have no staff to lead?

What I learned from Hanging the Mirror is that the concept of self-reflection is relevant to any business owner regardless of whether or not he or she has staff.  Every business benefits from an owner who can reflect on their beliefs and recognize how those beliefs impact the actions they take within their business.

Even if you’re starting as a solo-entrepreneur, it’s likely that you will be growing and bringing on staff.  It’s never too early to start learning about what makes a great leader, and Hanging the Mirror is precisely the book that will help you understand how to excel in that role.

Holly Howard is the founder of Ask Holly How, a New York City based consulting company focused on helping skilled artisans make the leap to become savvy entrepreneurs.  See for more information.   

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Involvement, Group Decision-Making, and the Path to Optimum Solutions

Involving employees in decisions that affect them and their work is crucial to capturing the human spirit in the workplace. Leaders, however, often resist involving employees in day-to-day affairs.

Such reluctance stems in large part from leaders’ perceptions of both themselves and their employees.

Because they were promoted into a position of leadership (and their employees were not), mangers often unconsciously assume that they must be smarter, more creative, better decision-makers, etc. than their employees. And many therefore feel that involving employees would introduce inferior ideas into deliberations and unnecessarily slow the decision-making process.

The human knowledge base, however, indicates just the opposite. Research has shown that involvement is one of the most effective ways of tapping the collective intelligence of an organization.

One study, for example, indicated that with basic training in consensus decision-making techniques (collaborative leadership, flexible patterns of communication, cooperative problem solving, etc.) a group-crafted solution is superior to the best solution of any individual member some 75 percent of the time.

Put simply, involving employees in decision-making processes will yield better results three times out of four, even if a leader actually is smarter, more creative, and a more capable decision-maker than her or his employees.

Group decision-making does not “average out” the talents and capacities of individual members, pulling down the top and raising the bottom. Rather, it multiplies those capabilities.

Far from detracting from the efficacy of the decision-making process, it generates possibilities and open horizons that none of the participants would have come to on his or her own. And as leaders become ever more dependent on the specialized and technical knowledge of their employees, involvement will become less a choice than a necessity.

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