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Winners Don't Depend On Atta-Boys

by Ramon Greenwood

There is no escaping the fact that everyone wants to be appreciated for doing a good job. "Atta-boys" are important to our self-esteem and effectiveness. A nationwide survey showed that appreciation ranks number one among the five most desired rewards for work. But the higher we climb up the career ladder the more scarce compliments become.

Winners in the world of work understand and deal with the reality of this paradox.

As you climb up the slippery slope there are fewer people to pay you compliments. Subordinates are reluctant to tell you that did a good job for fear they will be seen as "polishing the apple," to put it in polite terms. Besides, they are apt to think you don't need encouragement. And, of course, envy may play a role.

Bosses at the higher levels are often so rushed dealing with mistakes of the non-achievers make that they have less time to pass out thank you notes to those who regularly hit the ball. Or they may not think pats on the back are necessary for them.

The boss may be like Louis Gerstner, the man who managed IBM to a notable turnaround. I learned when I worked with him at American Express that he leads his executive team by the principle that "We're mature professionals; we are paid to do the job; therefore, I don't have to go around stroking everyone."

Sometimes Kudos Are Hard To Recognize
Some bosses can be praising their subordinates in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

A former client of mine, the vice president of corporate communications for a large manufacturing concern, was incensed at how little attention his boss, the chairman, paid to him. He really blew his top after the CEO spent only a few minutes glancing over and approving the annual message to shareholders, which had been written by the vice president.

"He just doesn't care," the young executive told me. "He never has a complimentary thing to say."

I was able to point out that the senior officer had just paid him a significant compliment. He knew the work would be first class; he didn't have to worry about the document. He didn't think it was necessary to say "good work."

Incidentally, my client consistently got top salary increases and bonuses.

It takes maturity and confidence to realize that although the kind of recognition the vice president received is less obvious and immediately pleasing to the ego as stand-up recognition at the employee honors dinner or mention in the company newsletter, it is more important in the long run.

You will be well served when you learn the difference between what feels good at the moment and really counts in the long run.

How To Handle Atta-Boys

What's to be done about atta-boys?

First, learn to be more the parent and less the child. Realize that you gain ground when you become a greater source of compliments to others than a receiver of kind words from our bosses.

Second, recognize that while kind words and bronze plaques are pleasing, winners gain strength by disciplining themselves to turn inward for psychic satisfaction and approval for the good work they do and the influence they exert.

They are the careerists who are able to stay the course to successful finishes because they are primarily self-contained when it comes to recognizing their achievements, building their own sense of self-worth and motivating themselves to meet their own standards.

Third, it is important to understand that the best recognition you can receive comes when the organization has enough confidence in your abilities to expand your responsibilities and compensates you fairly for what you accomplish.

Fourth, the ultimate winners are those who make sure their employers are aware of the quality of their work so that the real rewards-more responsibility, more authority, more money-are forthcoming.

Ramon Greenwood is a former Senior Vice President of American Express. To subscriber to his free semi-monthly newsletter please go to

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