Small Efforts Can Make a Big Difference

She tried to maintain her composure, but one large tear betrayed her as it slipped over the brim and slid down her cheek. “Why don’t they ever tell me that?” she asked plaintively. She had just received a positive annual review with quotes read by the firm administrator of the complimentary assessments by the attorneys she worked for.

Like that legal admin, most of us hunger for feedback, yet we are terrified of receiving it. We have heard a lot over the years about what we do wrong from parents, teachers, bosses, spouses and even strangers. How often do we hear what we do right?

Studies show that the most powerful employee motivator is timely personal acknowledgment for a job well done. Employees will even stay at a lower paying job if they feel their contributions are valued. What an excellent, yet under-used management tool!

Why Are Acknowledgments Rarely Given?

Since acknowledgment is so effective and carries no financial cost, why do lawyers use it so rarely? One significant reason may be that, like most of the rest of the world, we just don’t know how to do it. Effective acknowledgment hasn’t been modeled for us enough. Another reason may be that an effective acknowledgment must be sincere, and sincerity tugs at our heartstrings, making us feel vulnerable and perhaps out of control. A third possible factor is that as lawyers we are conditioned to focus on what could go wrong, in order to protect against the risk, or on what did go wrong, in order to assign blame. What went right seems almost irrelevant from that perspective.

Regardless of the reason for our past actions, we don’t have to keep wasting valuable opportunities to increase productivity and get quality work from our staff and other team members. How do we make an appropriate acknowledgment? One lawyer had the tendency to tell his staff they were “dong a great job” one day, and complain irritably about something the next day. The staff felt confused about what they had done well before, and lost trust in the integrity of his words. Morale sagged, and employees often wasted time fretting amongst themselves about what he wanted.

How to Give an Effective Acknowledgment

To avoid such pitfalls, keep in mind the following four points in crafting an effective acknowledgment:

  1. Be timely. To enhance performance, the acknowledgment should come soon after the behavior we want to reinforce. If someone does an exceptional job in April, but we wait until the year-end review to acknowledge the effort, two unfortunate results can occur. One, by December we may have forgotten the April efforts, or the magnitude of them. Two, between April and December the employee may have become disheartened and perhaps even sour. The employee may get the impression that his extraordinary efforts were not noticed or appreciated, so why bother?
  2. Be specific. Accolades such as “great job” without further information do not provide any guidance as to what behavior we would like to see more of from the employee. Was it great because the turnaround was quick? Because there were no typos? Because it solved a perplexing and ongoing problem? Because the efforts demonstrated initiative and original thinking? Let them know specifically what you liked and why.
  3. Be sincere. Effusive praise (unless it is truly and extraordinarily warranted) may do more harm than good. If our praise outshines the employee’s effort, she will tend to distrust either our judgment or our honesty. Employees can also discern mere lip service from the real thing, especially over time. We can give credibility to our acknowledgment by supplying the specifics and keeping the tone genuine.
  4. Acknowledge ordinary success. Acknowledgments don’t need to involve trumpets heralding extraordinary events. Acknowledge any behavior that you would like to maintain or see more of. Here are a few examples:

“Alice, I appreciate that you almost always arrive at work on time. It makes me feel like I can count on you.”

“Jeff, you got all those copies back to me in the right order. I appreciate your conscientiousness.”

“Karen,that was a perceptive idea you suggested at the meeting this morning. The client wants to follow up on it.”

Practice Makes Ease

If acknowledgments feel a little uncomfortable or foreign to you, you just need more practice. To keep the daily urgencies of practicing law from distracting you from this important but often overlooked activity, set up some goals or structures to hold the focus on it. Start small and “increase the reps” as you build your acknowledgment muscles. Initially you might aim to deliver an acknowledgment to at least one person per day.  Here are a few structures that might help you remember:

  1. Put your acknowledgment goal on your task list;
  2. Leave yourself a voicemail;
  3. Put a stone or trinket in your pocket as a reminder; or
  4. Get an accountability partner.

If you get off a long conference call at the end of the day and discover everyone else has left the office, leave someone a note of acknowledgment. If you forget to give an acknowledgment at the office, give one to your spouse or kids. They won’t mind a bit!

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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One comment on “Small Efforts Can Make a Big Difference

  • I just started reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and an entire chapter/premise is devoted to the idea of sincere acknowledgement of positive accomplishments. It’s definitely an underutilized tool in today’s business world, and any manager who embraces it is a step ahead.

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