A Story of Giving Authentic and Effective Recognition by Wally Bock

By: Wally Bock, leadership writer, researcher, trainer, and author of the Three Star Leadership Blog

Wally Bock

For the month of August, we’re featuring your perspectives on Authenticity and Recognition! Click to Learn More.

Sam Walton’s Approach to Giving Employees Feedback

WalMartThere are lots of great stories about Sam Walton, the legendary founder of Wal-Mart. Here’s one of my favorites about Mr. Sam and delivering recognition.Walton was always out visiting Wal-Mart stores. He was doing that one day when he spotted a young associate who was folding sweaters for display.

She was having a hard time and the sweaters were folded in several different ways. Walton approached her.

“You sure are working hard, young lady,” he began. “Would you like to see how you can that better?”

Naturally, the young associate agreed and Walton spent the next several minutes showing her how to do the job. After she had done it correctly several times, Walton beamed and told her that he really appreciated how she worked to get the sweaters just right.

Then Walton called several other associates over. He pointed out the associate he’d been helping.

“This young woman really does a great job of getting those sweaters ready for display,” said Walton. “I want you to watch her and learn how she does it.”

Many of the managers I’ve seen over the years would have handled this differently. They would have pointed out to the associate that she was doing things “wrong.” They would have corrected her and admonished her to “do it right from now on.”

Walton began by recognizing that the associate was working hard. He asked if she wanted to do things better.

Walton didn’t take credit for teaching her a better way to fold the sweaters. Instead he recognized her effort and learning.

Walton then gave her public recognition for what she’d learned.

What We Can Learn from This Story

Here are a few take-aways.

Recognition is only authentic if the actions are worth recognizing. That doesn’t mean they have to be perfect. You can recognize effort. You can recognize progress. And, of course, you can recognize good work.

Some people believe that you should always “recognize in public.” That’s nonsense. What we can learn from Sam Walton is that a lot of good, effective, authentic recognition happens one-on-one.

Don’t wait to deliver recognition. The sooner, the better.

When you do recognize in public, don’t dilute your praise by taking some of the credit. Sam Walton never mentioned his role in the associate’s learning.

You can deliver recognition just like Sam Walton. Make it authentic and timely and you’ll find that it will empower and inspire.

Wally Bock specializes in learning and sharing how effective leadership at all levels and simple strategy combine to create successful companies. He is the author or co-author of several books including The Working Supervisor’s Support Kit and Ruthless Focus: How to use key core strategies to grow your business. He writes the award-winning Three Star Leadership Blog.

 Tags: , , , , , ,   Posted in: Authentic Recognition, Your Perpective on Authentic Recognition

8 Responses

  1. Dan Collins - August 6, 2010


    Some of the very best lessons in leadership are learned when we hear simple stories of exceptional leaders doing the simplest things – The things not taught at any business school – Just good people doing what they do and making a difference.Thank you for sharing such an actionable and powerful insight that we can all learn from. Dan

  2. mark allen - August 6, 2010

    Ironic during heavy budget cutbacks… the very best things in life are still free. 🙂

  3. Barry Smith - June 27, 2011

    Great story Wally. This type of attitude can be used in almost any profession. Pretty easy to assume that if a person is willing to work hard they are probably worth investing in but QUESTION: when do we decide that a person is no longer worth investing our time and resources?

  4. Wally Bock - June 28, 2011

    That’s a great question, Barry, because it’s one that almost every working boss has asked at one time or another. I think there are two situations that are slightly different. For both you need clear standards about what performance is minimally acceptable and what behavior is acceptable. My experience is that those people who choose not to pitch in or who, for whatever reason, simply can’t do the job show that early on. Your job as a boss is to document the performance/behavior and the process of coaching/training etc to fix the problem. If it’s not fixable, you’re in position to fire both fairly and finally. The slightly different situation is the person who’s a proven performer but not performing for reasons you judge to be temporary. A common example is anyone going through a divorce. Then I think you’re job is to cut them some slack, based on your previous investment in each other and the judgment that the situation is temporary.

  5. Sonia Di Maulo - June 29, 2011

    Thanks for the response, Wally! These are excellent guidelines.

    “Document the performance/behavior and the process of coaching/training…”: I want to emphasize the importance of documenting right from the start about what the realistic expectations are and how well the employee is doing to meet these expectations. This documentation will be your most valuable asset to help:
    1. Improve performance
    2. Communicate what is going well/not going well and why (with direct examples)
    3. Document the support that was provided

    These items will help you make an objective analysis before deciding that this “person is no longer worth investing our time and resources”. The conversation will be easier to have.

    I have developed 2 tools to help leaders and managers: (1) align expectations (Performance Status Report Template) and (2) have frequent one-on-one feedback conversations (3+1 Feedback Form). You can access these complimentary tools here: http://www.harvestperformance.ca/RTFFeedbackForm.doc

    Barry, thanks for asking this very important question!

  6. Dave "theHRCzar" Ryan - September 17, 2011

    As always Wally good stuff. It seems so simple sometimes but it usually is so hard. Go positive not negative – great way to live life.

  7. Wally Bock - September 18, 2011

    The principles are simple, Dave, and we often over-complicate them. But simple or not they’re devilishly hard to do consistently. We’re humans, so doing anything consistently is hard for us. And many of things we have to do when dealing with other people can seem scary, even if they’re not.

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