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Business lecturer and author Judith Umlas believes that the best way to leverage the most value from your professional and personal relationships is to be a “grateful leader” by acknowledging your co-workers, family members and friends for who they are, and not just for what they do.

Umlas, senior vice president, author and trainer at the International Institute for Learning, made the remark during her presentation at a Women’s History Month event hosted by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Office of Diversity Initiatives at the university’s Academic Center at Largo, Md.

The event, organized around the theme Working to Form a More Perfect Union, honored women in government and public service, and explored the principles and practices of acknowledging others that are fundamental to building and strengthening interpersonal-communication and leadership skills.

Much of Umlas’s interactive presentation featured encouragement and insights from two of her books, The Power of Acknowledgement, and Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results.

She began by sharing an anecdote about her appearance in Finland as a stand-in conference speaker for renowned project-management guru Dr. Harold Kerzner. Upon learning her talk was about leadership and acknowledgment, someone joked that Umlas might be better served to tour Helsinki and then go home because, “there is no such thing as acknowledgment in the Finnish culture.”

Undeterred, though apprehensive about speaking to a potentially unreceptive group, Umlas said she launched into her presentation by posing some provocative questions to her audience.

“I’ve heard that acknowledgment does not exist in the Finnish culture. Is that true? And I’ve also heard that Finland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Do you think there might be some connection between those two statistics?”

Said Umlas, “What happened next is still being talked about. At the first opportunity I gave them to share something, at least half the hands in the room went up.”

So, what inspired these conference attendees in a country devoid of cultural norms around acknowledgment to willingly and openly share their thoughts and feelings?

The answer, said Umlas, is found in our most basic survival instincts.  Next to physical survival, a human being’s greatest need is “psychological survival―to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated,” said Umlas in quoting Stephen Covey, author of the widely-known leadership development book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Umlas drew a sharp distinction between recognition and acknowledgment. Though important, recognition is most often about what a person does, but acknowledgment goes even deeper, she said.

“Acknowledgment is about letting people know they’re making a difference. It’s appreciation for who they are. And people are desperate to be seen [and valued] for who they are,” she added.

In fact, Umlas said, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), lack of acknowledgment is one of the greatest reasons people leave jobs.  “And this is so fixable. This is really a very simple message that everyone can get.”

Umlas, who said she believes that UMUC already fosters a culture of appreciation, added that such a culture can always be enhanced by adhering to what she calls the Five C’s of Acknowledgment:

  • Consciousness―Be aware of the thoughts you already have about acknowledging someone but that you haven’t acted on.
  • Choice―Take the risk and say yes more often to delivering that message of acknowledgment, even if you’re afraid of being seen as a softy.
  • Courage―Be daring and allow yourself to be open and vulnerable, and to express your feelings in a heartfelt way.
  • Communication―Consider the best way to deliver your message, but whether in person, by text or email, over lunch or in any number of ways, the key is to communicate it.
Commitment, the fifth “C” is, perhaps, the most important, Umlas said. “That’s the one that I want most to resonate with you. What are you going to do as a group, as an organization, in your families, to help this take root, to see the opportunities and act on them?”

On a “simple mission to repair the world” with grateful leadership and the power of acknowledgment, Umlas said she is confident that spreading the word to the audience at UMUC will help advance her goal.

“I know that as I pass [the message] on to you, you’ll pass it forward. You are in the education field. You can take it and run with it.”