Everyone wants to be recognized. It’s a great feeling. It’s one of those feelings that motivates us to work harder. It probably shouldn’t be our primary source of motivation, but it is definitely a great support to our motivation. It gives us that little “oomph” when things become difficult.

For recognition to be empowering, we need to consider how and what it means to the receiver. There are two forms of recognition: affirmation and appreciation.

Affirmation & Appreciation

Affirmation is letting you know that you are on the right track, or that the work you have done was done well, or that you have achieved a skill.

Today my kids got their yellow belts. Their sensei gave them both certificates. That certificate carried meaning because it confirmed that they had earned the next degree in their training. In fact, they already knew that they had earned that status because of the belt itself. The certificate was an added affirmation of that fact.

Affirmation is not useful when it is contrived, borderline sarcastic, even with good intentions. People know their status or progress. When they ask you, they only want to hear you say it. They are seeking from you affirmation that you agree with their assessment. If there is a disagreement in that assessment, then they are looking for areas of growth. Perhaps they have missed out something in their assessment. Therefore, false affirmation neither is in agreement with their own assessment nor carries without adequate justification for the discrepancy.

Appreciation is telling people that they did a great job. It considers the work they have done and conveys gratitude for their contribution to you or the community you are both a part of. It is a “thanks for helping out.”

These are the two forms of recognition: affirmation and appreciation.

Pop quiz: when a manager meets with her employee for an appraisal, she evaluates the progress the employee has made and determines the next step. If the employee is deserving of a raise, is it affirmation or appreciation?

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It is affirmation because the manager is evaluating the progress of the employee and providing an assessment. The raise affirms that progress.

If sales rep has landed a big sale and the sales team throws a party celebrating this individuals contribution to the overall annual sales target, is it affirmation or appreciation?

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It is appreciation because the recognition focuses on their contribution to the overall goal of the team.

Anyone at anytime can be affirmed. Anyone at anytime can be appreciated. It should never be the result of competition.

Even in sports, a coach will affirm the hard work of the athlete long before the actual competition. The team will appreciate each others efforts to prepare and motivate each other long before they journey to the competition. The competition itself serves as the incentive for the work, but it should not be the source of recognition.

When achievement becomes the source of recognition, it results in prestige or status which has its own set of negative repercussions. Appreciation is almost like a “Thank you.” Affirmation is a “Well done.” Only a customer would appreciate after a medal, and the last thing anyone wants is for the team or the coach to become the customer of the athlete.

Appreciation is almost like a “Thank you.” Affirmation is a “Well done.” From this perspective, the source of each form of recognition is critical. A mentor must affirm, but not necessarily appreciate. A peer must appreciate, but not necessarily affirm.

My kids’ sensei must affirm them. They are motivated by hearing that they are improving in their skill. A manager at work can affirm their employee. It motivates the employee towards even further growth. Anyone in a mentor position with an individual should recognize through affirmation.

My kids’ peers, the other students in their class, can appreciate them. They can be thanked for their performance. For helping another child learn. There are many other areas in which they can be “thanked” by their peers.

Recognition Gone Wrong

If the wrong form of recognition is provided from the wrong source, problems can ensue. If your boss is constantly appreciating, you will start to get a big head. You will feel as if your boss is dependent on you. To your team, it may seem like your boss is showing favoritism towards you.

Similarly, affirmation should not come from your team. If you are affirmed by your peers, then the first problem is that you may not being receiving an accurate assessment. Peers might turn into band-wagoners, yes-man, who simply want to be associated to you, but not necessarily have a vested interest in your growth. You may develop an air of superiority over them.

In school, teachers give affirmation all the time. However, in many classes, the classmates start repeating the teacher, the mentor, and then affirmation turns into superiority.

When I was in school, I used to struggle with this. I did well enough in my exams. If you were to ask me when a teacher affirmed me, I have no recollection. However, I can remember countless times that my peers affirmed me, and my ego swelled.

When I was a manager, heading a team of developers, I used to appreciate as much as I affirmed. I viewed myself as part of the team. Many nights were spent being part of the team as we, together, delivered on a deadline. And although it was clear that I was the manager, I was also generous in my appreciation, my thanks for the hard work they put in. This led to many issues in favoritism. I never understood where that idea of favoritism came from until I began to process the difference between recognition by affirmation and recognition by appreciation.

Affirmation from your peers should be limited. Appreciation from your mentor should be limited. Mentors affirm, peers appreciate.

Self-Worth centered Recognition

Now, connecting all of this to our self-worth, the vision of Hope Torch, there is a direct correlation between recognition and self-worth.

Self-worth is the belief that we have something to contribute to ourselves, our families and our communities. The contribution to ourselves comes in the form of personal growth. The contribution to community is through our social action, regardless of vertical, for the benefit of others.

Affirmation directly impacts our motivation towards our belief that we can contribute to ourselves. Affirmation is the proof that we have made this contribution and grown from it. Affirmation from a peer does not confirm that we have grown because a peer does not have the authority to make that assessment. Thus, affirmation must come from a mentor, the overseer of our growth.

Appreciation is derived out of our contribution to others. It is the validation that our self-worth has in fact resulted in an impact to those around us. Therefore, appreciation must come from those around us, our peers.

Affirmation and Appreciation in Specifics

Finally, both of these forms of recognition must be delivered in specifics. As we all know, a generalized “great job, well done” does nothing to affirm growth. If we have truly grown in some area, our mentor’s appreciation will be derived from that growth. A mentor who does not pay attention to the details of an individual’s growth, suggests that the growth is irrelevant. There is no possibility for teaching indicating the mentor has little interest in teaching. Similarly, general “thank you’s” from our peers feel almost meaningless. If we truly had an impact on an individual, they will derive their appreciation specifically from that impact.

Mentor affirmation must be derived from the growth we have obtained. Peer appreciation must be derived from the impact we have had upon them.

Knowledge Transfer – the Ideal Recognition

The action that encapsulates both affirmation from the mentor and appreciation from the peer is knowledge transfer. When your manager asks you to transfer your knowledge, to teach your coworker or team member, on a specific topic, one, your mentor is affirming by implying you are knowledgeable to teach, a huge form of affirmation. Naturally, the mentor is affirming in specifics because they have specified what topic to teach. They have identified you as an expert in that topic. If your knowledge transfer goes well, your peer will appreciate in specifics after having acquired knowledge in that specific topic.

Knowledge transfer, when done well, can be the ultimate in recognition, both affirmation from mentor and appreciation from peer.

For recognition to empower, affirmation and appreciation are critical to center empowerment on self-worth, but only if they come from the right source.

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