"I can't go on like this much longer."

I was leading a project and Andrea was struggling. She was the top performer on my team, and she did amazing work. But we were serving a particularly difficult client, and she was feeling burnt out.

"I'm no spring chicken anymore," Andrea told me. 

I reassured her of how much I valued her, but I knew she needed a break. We finished up without her.

After the project finished, we got excellent feedback from the client. My first phone call was to Andrea. I told her the kind words the client had to say about her particularly, and how much I appreciated the effort she has put into this project. 

"We couldn't have done this without you," I said.

"Thank you so much," Andrea said. "You don't know how much this means to me. I'd be happy to help out on a similar project in the future. Thank you again."

I could "hear" her smiling from ear to ear. 

After years of managing persons and projects across the globe, I've found that a simple rule of emotional intelligence helps me to establish deeper, stronger, more loyal relationships--both at work and at home.

I like to call it the rule of recognition.

The rule of recognition is simple: Your default setting is to focus on what a person does right, and make a point to commend the person for those positive actions, sincerely and specifically.

This accomplishes three things. Let's break them down.

It encourages the person to continue those positive behaviors.

Sometimes a manager will ask me: "Why would you commend someone for doing something they're supposed to do?"

My answer: "So they keep doing it."

Some of us are so focused on looking for things to correct, we're blind to all the positive things people do on a daily basis. But when you default to looking for the good in others and recognizing their potential, you create self-fulfilling prophecies: People who continue to fulfill what you've confirmed they're capable of.

It builds trust and psychological safety.

After years of research on what makes teams effective, Google identified a single factor as most important: Psychological safety.

According to Google, in a team with high psychological safety, "teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea."

Psychological safety is really a fancy word for trust.

The rule of recognition builds trust because of the type of commendation it is. This isn't empty words of flattery, which most people will see through. Rather, it's sincere and specific commendation, tailored to the individual.

In the workplace, it might look like this: "Hi _________, do you have a minute? I wanted to tell you something. I know I don't say it enough, but I really appreciate what you do around here. The way you [insert: specific action taking care of a project, client, problem]--it was great. I could really see your [insert: specific quality] in action and how much it benefits the company. Keep up the good work." 

How would those words make you feel? 

Again, the key is to keep it real--by making your commendation sincere and specific.

It makes it easier to share constructive criticism.

Once your people see you as someone who looks for the positive, who recognizes their efforts, and who makes them feel safe, they'll be more open to hear your criticism, too.

That's because they'll know you as someone who's looking out for the best in them, rather than someone who's always looking to criticize. The fact that your default feedback is positive will make any constructive criticism more palatable and easier to put into practice, especially if you deliver it in an emotionally intelligent way.

So if you're looking to build stronger, healthier, and more loyal relationships, remember the rule of recognition.

If you do, you will:

  • Encourage your people to continue positive behavior.
  • Build trust and psychological safety.
  • Make it easier to share constructive criticism.

Above all, you'll help your people to become the best version of themselves.

(If you enjoy the lessons in this article, be sure to sign up for my free emotional intelligence course, where each day for 10 days you get a similar rule designed to help you make emotions work for you, instead of against you.)