By Tony Burgess
3×5 Leadership Note: Tony shared these thoughts with a local community of leaders that he has been working with last week. With his permission, we are sharing an adapted version of his reflections here. When Tony Burgess speaks or writes, I pay attention. I think we can all benefit from his reflection.
In their book How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work, Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey assess appreciation and admiration as crucial parts of communicating “ongoing regard.”
“We all do better at work if we regularly have the experience that what we do matters, that it is valuable, and that our presence makes a difference to others … hearing that our work is valued by others can confirm for us that we matter as a person. It connects us to other people. This is no small matter in organizations where the pace and intensity of work can lead a person to feel isolated. This sense that we signify may be one of our deepest hungers. One way we experience that what we are doing at work is valuable is by hearing regularly from others how they value what we do.” (p. 92)
However, a surprising number of work teams vastly under communicate appreciation and admiration for each other. Too many people don’t know if what they do matters or is valuable, and they aren’t really sure that their presence makes a difference to others. As Kegan and Lahey note, this is “a terrible deprivation of the vitality of a work setting.”
As leaders, we must buck that trend!
Let me introduce you to some key insights from Kegan and Lahey’s book (taken from Chapter Five: “The Language of Ongoing Regard”).
What do attempts at communicating ongoing regard typically sound like? Here are three examples. As you read them, imagine yourself as the leader talking here:
- “I’d just like to especially acknowledge Jacqueline’s contributions to this effort. She went way beyond the call of duty here and deserves a round of applause from us all.” [Not direct]
- “You were so great in that client meeting yesterday, Angus. I don’t know what we would have done without you there.” [Not specific]
- “Thanks, you have been such a great teammate in this project. You are so patient, so flexible, and so smart.” [Attributive, putting labels on someone]
What do you think? Are these examples of effective communication?
Kegan and Lahey write: “…each of these speeches partakes in one of the three most common ways we drain the power out of such communication.” In other words, we could be much more effective if we understood “three qualities that make communication of ongoing regard more powerful.”
Three Qualities to Powerfully Communicate Appreciation and Admiration
- Be Direct. Deliver appreciation or admiration directly to the person. Speak to the person, not about him/her to others using the third person.
- Be Specific. Cut through the generalizations and describe in concrete ways what you appreciate or admire about the person. The person then knows what you are talking about and can decide what meaning to make of it. Of note, when we give concrete examples of what we appreciate or admire about someone, we get “an unusually clear window into ourselves.” And we can ask ourselves, “Which kinds of behaviors do I find myself appreciating or admiring?”
- Be Nonattributive. Powerful communications of appreciation and admiration “do not characterize the other’s attributes but rather describe the speaker’s experience; in shorthand, the communications are nonattributive.” Rather than making generalizations (like a label) about the person—for example, “she is helpful” or “smart” or “selfless”—instead describe how the person’s behavior impacted you.
A few important closing thoughts from Kegan and Lahey:
“Ongoing regard is not about praising, stroking, or positively defining a person to herself or to others. We say again: it is about enhancing the quality of a precious kind of information. It is about informing the person about our experience of him or her.”
“These communications are inevitably less smooth, more halting, more originally created right there on the spot. They have none of the canned quality of attributive praise. They are fresh. They are more intimate, in a sense, because they are about you, the speaker, revealing something personal about yourself, rather than you assuming you can reveal something about the other. For all these reasons, the result for the listener, and perhaps for you too, is inevitably more powerful.”
If you are like me, #3, “Be Nonattributive,” is the most difficult to understand and to practice. It also may be the most powerful in terms of impact on the other person—and on you!
To learn more on appreciation and/or admiration, you can check out these additional resources:
- How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work, by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahe
- Never Underestimate the Power of Appreciation, 3×5 Leadership
- Leadership and the Need for Perpetual Optimism, 3×5 Leadership
Tony Burgess is a retired Army officer and co-author of Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level, which is a classic book for all Army company-grade officers and NCOs in building effective, purposeful small units. Currently, Tony is the founder of the Cornwall Leadership Institute, which aims to improve leader effectiveness and build better organizations.
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