Celebrating small wins: The importance of baby steps

course on the sun by ucouldguess

Last week the Harvard Business Review published the results of Interact’s new Harris Poll of 1000 U.S. workers. The poll revealed what I have frequently heard from folks both on the front line and even in middle management: humans want to be appreciated for what they are doing. And it’s not about pizza.

Noticing and celebrating the good stuff can be a challenge for leaders who are constantly attending to problems. We aren’t hitting our metrics, shrink is getting out of hand, H.R. has rules we have to learn and abide by, and I’ve started a new hobby: Collecting to-do lists. (Don’t they make a nice display cascading over the edge of the desk?)

Even leaders who have accepted that part of their role is to offer appreciation, encouragement, and celebration to their employees for what they’re doing well struggle to break free of their focus on problems in order to become conscious of the good.  Why is this?

With few exceptions, we aren’t wired to recognize small wins.  The exception seems to come with parenting. Human adults raising infants become so tuned in to each small change in the development of that child that when the baby shows incremental growth, it stands out to his or her caregiver, who celebrates naturally and easily.

In business however (and much of life), we are distracted from noticing incremental improvements. American workers, managers, and leaders typically are so overwhelmed by what needs to be done, the urgent overwhelming the important, that small improvements pale in comparison to the avalanche of business tasks and improvements that must yet be made.

How can you, as a leader, recognize the baby steps of improvement so you can recognize them appropriately?

Choose moments in which you will slow down

Set aside time each day in which you will limit/eliminate distractions. Schedule it — perhaps 30 or 60 minutes a day. Set the timer on your cell phone. When it beeps, you will stop, but not before.

Put it on your calendar and protect it. If you find yourself too willing to schedule over it and/or skip it, ask for accountability support from someone whose opinion matters to you.

Begin with deep belly breaths. Try a 10-10-10 exercise (breathe in for a count of 10, breathe out for a count of ten, and repeat ten times). This will help you to relax and focus. Remind yourself that the tasks and problems will still be there when you get back, and you will come back.

A practice of slowing down and intentionally offering appreciation every day will change what you notice, because you’ll be looking for material. “What can I recognize for someone today?” With each small win, you will start trying to figure out who could be responsible for that improvement.

Motivate yourself with a reminder of how important your feedback is to your employees

With my last large corporate client I regularly conducted group-coaching sessions with managers and leaders. At the end of each session I facilitated an exercise in which each participant could select one or two others in the group to receive appreciation from. Overwhelmingly, participants asked for appreciation from their own leaders. Why?

When I asked them, here’s the answer I heard: We care more about our leaders’ opinion of our efforts than we do anyone else’s. We need to know that what we are doing is right, that the sacrifices we are making are worth it. Your employees are hungry for your appreciation.

Ask for support

A fascinating dynamic happens when a leader begins to offer appreciation and recognize small wins. This is an attempt at behavior change, which is difficult. Youwill probably not succeed in changing your behavior if you do not receive recognition for your efforts. If nobody notices that you are doing something different becausethey are so busy and stuck in old habits, you will probably become discouraged and stop.

What works, then, is to tell people you are actively working on changing your behavior. Announce it at a staff meeting, and then remind them in the moment: “As you know, I’ve decided to offer appreciation more. I think it’s going to be awkward for us both at the beginning, but I’m going to try it now and then ask you to tell me how I did. Okay?”  It will be awkward–and you’ll get better at it over time. You will reap the rewards of the effort.

Limit yourself to the positive

Ironically, celebrating small wins is so awkward and outside of our experience that we sometimes begin with an intention to offering appreciation, but we fall quickly into our old habits of criticising and raising the bar. For at least the first month that you are practicing this new habit, limit yourself to the positive. Give yourself the chance to really learn how to do it. Say what’s good and then force yourself to walk away.

Become an interested interviewer

Sometimes when you are just getting started, offering appreciation may feel like pulling your own teeth. Your filters have been overwhelming tuned to picking up problems. What could you possible recognize as positive when the world feels like it’s falling down around your ears?

Here’s an actual trick you can use: Become an interviewer, completely interested in your employee’s perspective. Use starters like these:

  1. Thanks for doing xyz (i.e. “that presentation for the team”). What do you believe you did well? [Note: Most people will respond to this question with a list of everything they did wrong. If someone does this, prompt them again to tell you what they did well, and insist on at least three examples. Then ask them what they can do to be more effective next time. Insist on these being actual steps they can take, not things to avoid or “not” do.]
  2. Last month we talked about seeking improvement on your (KPI). What have you tried so far? What successes have you seen? [As above, if you only get negatives in response to this question, insist they tell you somethingpositive, even if it’s a lesson they have learned.]

Recognizing employee achievements is so important to your employees that it was recognized as the #1 communication issue that prevents effective leadership. It is a foundation of effective change management. It stands to reason that to become a more effective leader, you must develop a practice of recognizing small wins. Begin today by making time–start small!–and practicing every day.


Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders to influence more effectively so their impact on people, on results, and in their world is positive.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and intervene effectively in their systems. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook or Twitter.


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