Recognize the messenger

The way we treat the bearer of bad news, criticism, and new ideas matters. Here’s how to do it well.

Employee recognition” is all the rage lately.

The idea is that you should positively reinforce the behaviors you want to see in your team. Want employees to hit their sales goals? Recognize those who do. Want employees to be more creative in the work they deliver? Recognize those who do.

However, when it comes to cultivating and open and honest culture, what we often forget (or conveniently avoid) as leaders is to positively reinforce one particular behavior: We rarely encourage our team to tell the truth.

How often do we publicly and graciously recognize employees for being a voice of dissent? For asking tough questions? For calling out mistakes? For being flat-out honest in our organizations?

And, how often do we do it well?

A few years ago, I was inspired by a fellow CEO in Chicago who shared with me something she does at every all-hands meeting…

Prior to the meeting, she reflects on the feedback she’s gotten (through Know Your Company, no less — she’s a happy customer 😊). Then, at every all-hands meeting, she will publicly thank a specific person who offered a critical opinion, or asked a tough question, or brought up a new idea. She’ll recognize that one person by name, and with genuine sincerity. She’ll thank them for speaking up and being honest… even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with his or her viewpoint.

This CEO immediately noticed the difference her actions made after the first time she did this. At the next all-hands meeting, there were more hands raised, more questions asked, more ideas offered.

Her simple, earnest “thank you” went a long way when it comes to acting on feedback. She didn’t implement the person’s idea. Nor did she even agree sometimes with the person’s perspective. But she did truly listen, and appreciate what the person had to say.

This isn’t to say you should never act on feedback or implement someone’s suggestion. This is just to say that cultivating a more open, honest work environment starts by recognizing the messenger.

Most of the time, when an employee gives feedback, they are merely looking for this recognition: Acknowledgement that they have been heard. Validation that you are listening. Gratitude for weighing in. Sometimes that recognition is all they are looking for.

This CEO’s practice of intentionally recognizing a person publicly for giving honest feedback is powerful also in how she does it. Notice two things:

  1. The recognition is specific. She didn’t say “Big thanks to my leadership team” or “Great job, support team”. It wasn’t vague, it wasn’t generalized. She specifically recognizes the person by name, giving them respect and individualized attention for doing something that she believes is important to the company. Other employees who are watching and observing this won’t easily forget that.
  2. The recognition is heartfelt. She never faked the “thank you.” She never recognized someone just for show. People will see right through you when you’re doing something to just check the box and appear to be “doing all the correct things as a leader.” There are few things are worse as a saying something and not meaning it. Going through the motions of a “thank you” is one of the worst actions of insincerity.

Personally, I’ve taken a page out of this CEO’s book. I try to make my recognition toward my team specific and heartfelt. And, I do this not only in all-company meetings, but in the moment — during a one-on-one conversation, in an email or a group chat.

Give it a shot. Who do you need to thank in your company for telling the truth?

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