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Ok, so who doesn’t want a standing ovation once in a while? And if you truly don’t, I respect that. Maybe it’s a metaphorical “standing O” that’s more comfortable.

So here’s the deal. In several important respects, standing ovations, or any kind of recognition or acknowledgment from others, isn’t actually about you.

No kidding. It’s not about you.

Curious? Here’s what I’m talking about.

Put your hands up if you feel humility or being humble is a great trait to have (I’m imagining lots of hands). Me too. And too much humility can be a barrier to being impactful and effective. Much has been written on this, and here’s my take.

Recently, I was at an important leadership forum where one of the organization’s most revered leaders had announced her retirement to take place later this year. This leader has been with the organization for more than 15 years and played some of the most influential and senior roles throughout her tenure. This includes being the CEO for a couple of years in a time of organizational transition. She is incredibly well respected and loved.

The event I was at wasn’t a formal retirement event. That’s to come later. This was a meeting of an important leadership group in the organization, and she was presenting as an Executive of the organization. Towards the end of the event, the Chair of the Board offered some words of acknowledgement for this leader, as this would be the last time the she would be speaking to this group. At the end of the Chair’s words, and as this leader took the podium, the room unanimously erupted in applause and everyone rose to their feet. The leader, having gracefully taken the stage, almost immediately began to hush the crowd and their applause by doing the ‘waving hands down’ thing you’ve likely seen people do when they want you to stop clapping and cheering. I have no doubt that the leader’s humility was at play. Her intention was seemingly very genuine, and here’s the message this kind of gesture can send to those offering their acknowledgment:

“Stop doing this, it’s:

  • unnecessary
  • uncomfortable
  • undeserving
  • embarrassing
  • ridiculous
  • too time-consuming
  • no big deal
  • (I’m) just doing my job.”

A few interpretations, and not doubt there could be many more.

Here’s the thing. When recognition is given (1:1, in a large public setting, etc.) it is as much about the givers wanting to say ‘thank you’ to the person they’re acknowledging as it is for the person receiving the recognition. When the person receiving moves the recognition aside with a “oh, it was no big deal” or “the team took care of it,” it can create the impact that the difference they made personally and/or professionally to the giver really doesn’t matter. As a result, this diminishes the giver of the recognition. These signs of acknowledgment are some of the most sincere ways we can connect with each other as human beings after an important exchange of time/energy/effort/resources has taken place.

When we downplay the gesture of acknowledgement, be it an in-the-moment verbal exchange or a standing ovation, we send a message that the effort of recognition being extended isn’t warranted or wanted. That whatever was done wasn’t a big deal, even though to the giver(s) it really was. That the giver should really stop what he/she/they are doing because it isn’t really wanted and as such, wouldn’t be welcomed in the future.

So we train each other to start minimizing acknowledgements. Because they are uncomfortable. And they become that way for everyone.

Not our intent when we go to hush the crowd, as this revered, generous leader did. But that can be the impact.

Further, because I’ve seen this happen with kids present, we suggest to our children that it’s not right or appropriate to fully receive recognition when it’s being given. So because it’s not wanted, we train kids subliminally to stop giving it and not know what to do when they receive it, especially as they get older.

In my humble opinion, we need more moments of sincere recognition today. We live in a world of ‘not enough’ and ‘less than’ already. Ending recognition and moments to genuinely offer and receive ‘thanks’ only deepens this spiral.

As mentioned, so much of this falls on us when we are in moments of receiving recognition. It is our discomfort that has us bail out of truly staying and just receiving the ‘thank-you,’ the acknowledgment, the applause.

So here’s the skill in this. Learn to receive recognition.

These are my 4 tips to receiving recognition:

  1. Understand your relationship to being recognized. How comfortable is it? What does it mean when someone meaningfully acknowledges you? What does that bring up for you personally? What’s the cost to pushing recognition away? What’s the cost to simply receiving it for a few moments before moving on?
  2. Be fully present to the moment and experience. There’s nothing to do other than to receive and acknowledge in return, by looking into the eye(s) of those recognizing you and smiling.
  3. Express gratitude when the cheering stops. Because it will. And it will when the givers of recognition, those for whom you’ve truly made a difference, complete their expression. Just as you likely wanted to completed the exchange/task/project/role for which you’re now being recognized.
  4. Share what the recognition means to you. It’s a way to say ‘thank you’ for the ‘thank you.’

In the end, what I believe is that we all long to be seen and heard – in our work, teams, families….our life. Being recognized and giving recognition is one of the most powerful ways to do that with one another. Both sides giving and receiving.

So as a I leader, I challenge you to build your receiving muscle as much as your giving muscle. It will help complete the circle of the almighty Standing Ovation.