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Recognition Instead of Praise: Success factor Empathy

Recognition Instead of Praise: Success factor Empathy

Nowa­days, hard­ly any job adver­tise­ment comes with­out a require­ment for empa­thy. It is a key com­pe­tence and can make the dif­fer­ence between good and bad in a com­pa­ny context.

It is not uncom­mon for the feed­back cul­ture and thus the entire cor­po­rate cul­ture to depend on the empath­ic skills of the exec­u­tives. But what actu­al­ly is empa­thy and how can we cul­ti­vate and use it?

Sur­veys among employ­ees of Ger­man com­pa­nies con­firm that our work­ing envi­ron­ment is in des­per­ate need of praise. Nowhere else do employ­ees com­plain more about the lack of humane­ness in every­day cor­po­rate life than in Ger­many. That every­one needs recog­ni­tion, atten­tion and love for a hap­py life is noth­ing new. Sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ments with infants have shown that infants can­not sur­vive with­out atten­tion and care. Indeed, atten­tion is giv­en greater impor­tance than things like accom­mo­da­tion type or the avail­abil­i­ty of food. 

While Ger­many is inter­na­tion­al­ly con­sid­ered to be indus­tri­al­ly pro­gres­sive, there seems to be a clear lack of inter­per­son­al close­ness in this coun­try. Per­son­al con­tact in every­day work has been hand­ed over to instru­ments and devices. Online employ­ee sur­veys and stan­dard per­for­mance reviews lead away from bilat­er­al, inter­per­son­al exchange and inter­ac­tion with one anoth­er. In this way we cre­ate an instru­men­tal approach to peo­ple. Spe­cif­ic and spon­ta­neous humane­ness is avoid­ed in com­pa­nies for rea­sons of effi­cien­cy. A pseu­do-human­i­ty, which in no way can replace the nec­es­sary per­son­al atten­tion and recog­ni­tion, is already part of every­day life.

Lead­ing on distance

We also opti­mize the increas­ing­ly scarce time in dai­ly work through remote guid­ance via online chan­nels. The price we pay for this, how­ev­er, is a lack of com­mit­ment, close­ness and belong­ing to our work, to our col­leagues or to the employ­er. The employ­ees are dis­sat­is­fied, unmo­ti­vat­ed, unpro­duc­tive or leave the company. 

Most of the old­er employ­ees have already men­tal­ly resigned long ago, and the younger gen­er­a­tion is not afraid to change employ­ers. How can we as man­agers coun­ter­act this? The key­word is empa­thy. But how does this much-praised and most impor­tant com­pe­tence of today’s man­ag­er work?

Recognition Instead of Praise: Success factor Empathy

Enjoy­ing the joys of oth­ers and suf­fer­ing with them – these are the best guides for man.”

(Albert Ein­stein)

Empa­thy is under­stood as the abil­i­ty to tune in to anoth­er per­son­’s emo­tions and thus under­stand them. Empa­thy is a com­pass. It nav­i­gates the way we deal with our­selves and with our fel­low human beings. Clar­i­ty aris­es when we can empathize with anoth­er per­son­’s emo­tion­al sit­u­a­tion. The behav­ior of one’s dis­cus­sion part­ner becomes more com­pre­hen­si­ble and pro­vides ori­en­ta­tion, which in turn makes authen­tic and present inter­ac­tion possible. 

Accord­ing to US econ­o­mist Jere­my Rifkin, empa­thy is a process of devel­op­ment towards an abil­i­ty that is most cen­tral to us as human beings, as it dis­tin­guish­es itself from oth­er mam­mals. Because from empa­thy, com­pas­sion can evolve. Com­pas­sion is a life atti­tude in which one rec­og­nizes one­self and one’s fel­low human beings and accepts them as they are, with­out manip­u­la­tion, with­out arro­gance and with­out inval­i­da­tion or eval­u­a­tion. It lets us reflect on the fact that the prob­lems that make life dif­fi­cult for us also affect oth­er peo­ple in one way or anoth­er, and that — in gen­er­al terms — every­one goes through dif­fi­cult phases.

How do I live empa­thy in every­day life?

In order to actu­al­ly live empa­thy in every­day life, the fol­low­ing four steps have shown to be helpful:

  1. Be clear about yourself.
  2. Take the oth­er seriously.
  3. Give the oth­er per­son your full attention.
  4. Take time for each oth­er and lis­ten carefully.

What can be sum­ma­rized clear­ly and com­pact­ly from the begin­ning is most­ly the result of a lengthy devel­op­ment process. This is not the only rea­son why things like mind­ful­ness train­ing or med­i­ta­tion are gain­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty in companies.

Empa­thy can heal 

The com­pas­sion that aris­es through empa­thy strength­ens the body and soul and brings about psy­cho­log­i­cal robust­ness. Being open and empa­thet­ic has a pos­i­tive effect on almost all organs and body sys­tems. Inflam­ma­to­ry reac­tions, which occur more fre­quent­ly with increased stress, occur less often or have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to heal. 

Empa­thy brings com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the com­pa­ny to life. It unites the orga­ni­za­tion and is one of the nec­es­sary pil­lars in trans­for­ma­tion projects which are cur­rent­ly gain­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, such as New Work”. 

Noth­ing is just one-sided. A man­ag­er who tries to devel­op empa­thy must also learn to dis­tance him­self from oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tions. But that does­n’t mean cut­ting one­self off from one’s own emo­tions or those of oth­ers. Fre­quent­ly, a very pro­nounced empa­thy can lead to those affect­ed feel­ing or actu­al­ly being exploited.

Recognition Instead of Praise: Success factor Empathy

Empa­thy and recognition

Many cor­po­rate employ­ees repeat­ed­ly com­plain of stale, implau­si­ble and robot­ic phras­es from their supe­ri­ors. Seri­ous praise or nec­es­sary appre­ci­a­tion fiz­zle out and can even have the oppo­site effect. In today’s dig­i­tal age, any­one who wants to ensure that their

recog­ni­tion does not degen­er­ate into a thrash­ing of phras­es, is well advised to look for an empa­thet­ic, warm and humane con­tact at eye lev­el.

The acknowl­edg­ing per­son does not judge his con­ver­sa­tion part­ner, but rather express­es his pos­i­tive impres­sion of spe­cif­ic behav­iors or actions. Recog­ni­tion can always be giv­en bilat­er­al­ly. This is the hall­mark of an exchange on an equal foot­ing: It is reciprocal!

Recog­ni­tion is empath­ic and hon­est, because it lets the recip­i­ent gain infor­ma­tion — in con­trast to praise which, for exam­ple, often con­tains emp­ty phras­es like well done” or a pat on the back. It gives the recip­i­ent the oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ly feel per­son­al­ly val­ued. He can learn from the recog­ni­tion for his pro­fes­sion­al or per­son­al development.

Praise wants to manip­u­late, con­trol exter­nal­ly, get some­one else to do some­thing that ben­e­fits the one who is praising.”

Source: Spe­cial­ist jour­nal Per­son­alführung” (Sep­tem­ber 2006 edi­tion). The inter­view is con­duct­ed by Thomas Hartke (pp. 30 – 37)

In con­trast to recog­ni­tion, praise coun­ter­acts the inde­pen­dence and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty of the oth­er per­son. Praise is used manip­u­la­tive­ly and can have neg­a­tive con­se­quences. The mis­lead­ing lan­guage used in praise leads to lit­tle atten­tion. Instead, through recog­ni­tion, appre­ci­a­tion can be achieved on a per­son­al lev­el, which is char­ac­ter­ized by respect, trust and non-inter­fer­ence. To do this, how­ev­er, the man­ag­er has to look at him­self, observe him­self and assess him­self correctly.

Liv­ing recog­ni­tion in every­day work­ing life

Recog­ni­tion can be rec­og­nized in every­day life by the fol­low­ing indi­ca­tors. It is exclusively:

  • pos­i­tive
  • appre­cia­tive
  • con­crete
  • spe­cif­ic
  • direct
  • real
  • hon­est
  • empath­ic

The often invoked sand­wich feed­back” is, from a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, high­ly inef­fi­cient for tar­get-ori­ent­ed recog­ni­tion. In sand­wich feed­back, pos­i­tive phras­es are used to wrap up crit­i­cal com­ments. The recip­i­ent usu­al­ly does­n’t hear the pos­i­tive feed­back because his atten­tion will be focused on the neg­a­tive. Most peo­ple can­not accept neg­a­tive feed­back, let alone imple­ment it. The recog­ni­tion only real­ly works if it is giv­en as exclu­sive­ly pos­i­tive and appre­cia­tive feed­back. In order for the recog­ni­tion to rein­force a cer­tain behav­ior, its essen­tial prop­er­ties should be tak­en into account:

  • Authen­tic­i­ty: I’m giv­ing you feed­back because I real­ly appre­ci­ate what you’re doing.
  • Hon­esty: I’ll tell you hon­est­ly what I think of your behavior.
  • Empa­thy: I under­stand the efforts you put in your work. I know what your com­mit­ment means to me.

The com­ments should prompt­ly fol­low the behav­ior and address spe­cif­ic behav­iors that appear creditable.

Poten­tial of recognition

Recog­ni­tion makes a per­son human.”

Source: Spe­cial­ist jour­nal Per­son­alführung” (Sep­tem­ber 2006 edi­tion). The inter­view is con­duct­ed by Thomas Hartke (pp. 30 – 37)

By cre­at­ing a com­mon, mutu­al devel­op­ment atmos­phere, the recog­ni­tion con­tributes to oper­a­tional and per­son­al relax­ation as well as to well-being. A prac­ticed cul­ture of recog­ni­tion estab­lish­es equiv­a­lence on an equal foot­ing and serves as a foun­da­tion of trust. Where­as praise increas­es the hier­ar­chi­cal gra­di­ent and cre­ates a depen­den­cy on the man­ag­er. It is not uncom­mon for this to cause exist­ing prob­lems to worsen.

Recog­ni­tion facil­i­tates an effec­tive error cul­ture. Since it is bidi­rec­tion­al, man­agers also receives valu­able feed­back from their employ­ees and ben­e­fit from this approach on sev­er­al levels.


  • When do I feel able to lis­ten to my con­ver­sa­tion part­ner and be emphatic?
  • What kind of time am I hav­ing? Stressed? (Pre)occupied? Quiet?
  • What is my per­son­al ener­gy bal­ance like?
  • How much inter­est do I have in my con­ver­sa­tion part­ner / my co-workers? 
  • Which aspects of the behav­ior of my employ­ees do I find real­ly wor­thy of recognition?
  • How do I respond to the ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment of my employees?
  • How do I pro­vide hon­est feed­back on this?
  • How often do I pay atten­tion to peo­ple’s body language?
  • How do I know that the oth­er per­son is doing badly?
  • How dif­fi­cult is it for me to emo­tion­al­ly dif­fer­en­ti­ate myself from oth­er people?


Rein­hard K. Sprenger

  • Mythos Moti­va­tion – Wege aus ein­er Sack­gasse, Cam­pus Ver­lag, 20th edi­tion (Sep­tem­ber 102014)
  • Mit Lob bringt man die Frei­heit um, Spe­cial­ist jour­nal Per­son­alführung” (Sep­tem­ber 2006 edi­tion). Inter­view led by Thomas Hartke (p. 30 – 37)

Wern­er Bartens

  • Empa­thy: Die Macht des Mit­ge­fühls – Weshalb ein­fühlsame Men­schen gesund und glück­lich sind, Droe­mer Knaur Ver­lag, 1st edi­tion (May 42015)

Jere­my Rifkin

  • Die empathis­che Zivil­i­sa­tion – Wege zu einem glob­alen Bewusst­sein, Cam­pus Ver­lag (Jan­u­ary 182010)

Fur­ther for­mats on the topic

Empathy and the power of recognition

Empathy and the power of recognition

Half of all projects fail because too lit­tle pro­fes­sion­al atten­tion is paid to the inter­per­son­al. This is sur­pris­ing, because empa­thy is one of the mag­ic words” of our time.

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Men­tal resilience is not a mir­a­cle gene. It is an atti­tude that acti­vates resources and strength­ens your self-effi­ca­cy. Resilience helps to turn crises into power.

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