The perils of being ignored

‘He walks into the room. He doesn’t see me. He goes through the motions of greeting me, but there’s no connection.
I just don’t feature on his radar screen.”

This senior executive was talking about his boss and how not being seen has got under his skin, so much so that he’s looking for another job. Once again a person leaves a job they enjoy because of a boss not being aware of the importance of recognition.

I told the executive about the work of Masaru Emoto. Emoto is the Japanese scientist who researched water and how water molecules mirror the emotions that are in its immediate surroundings. The relevance for human beings is that we’re made up of about 70% water. So, if water picks up on emotions, it doesn’t matter how thick-skinned we are. Any mood, be it anger, joy or indifference, will have an affect on us.

Emoto developed a technique of using a microscope to take photos of water crystals that were frozen to 25C. His book, The Hidden Messages of Water, shows pictures of water from the polluted Fujuwara Dam. The water crystals look ugly and misshapen.

The same water was then blessed by a monk and the crystals photographed again. The crystals had formed a beautiful, leafy, lace-like composition. Apparently water can pick up the intention expressed in the written word in any language and also the emotion conveyed in music.

Emoto also took distilled water and labelled several water bottles with different words, such as “Thank You”, “Anger”, “Joy” or “You make me sick”. The crystal shapes configure beautifully in response to the “good” words and are misshapen in response to the harsh ones.

Sceptics criticise Emoto’s experiments for not being double-blinded. They say he matches water to the words, ignoring that he used distilled water. (See:

Tall story? Consider the following. Rice grains were placed in three jars, each with the same amount of moisture and access to light. One jar was given effusive attention, greeted warmly on passing.

The second jar was shouted at: “You are a fool.”

The third jar was ignored.

The first rice thrived exceptionally well. The second jar soured. The third rotted. It seems it is better to be in an actively negative relationship than in no relationship at all. Think of my client.

More than 50 years ago in post-war Britain, psychologists associated with the Tavistock Institute worked on the conditions we need in the workplace to feel productive.

Recognition is one of the six criteria they came up with. The other five are: elbow room, variety, learning opportunity, meaningfulness and a desirable future.

Robert Rehm, author of People in Charge, introduced me to this work 10 years ago.

If you do the work on the six criteria with a team, it’s a barometer of where people are. As a team leader it can give you incredible insights about what you must pay attention to.

Zero is the perfect score for elbow room, variety and learning. The scoring ranges from -5 to +5. If I have too much elbow room to make decisions I may feel adrift. If I have too little I may feel that my hands are tied. Recognition, meaningfulness and a desirable future are scored out of 10.

Some people have issues with the giving of recognition, that is timeous, constructive feedback. They say the discussions are cheesy. South Africans seem to be parsimonious in praising and free with criticism.

It might be challenging to do this if you grew up in an environment where praise was given begrudgingly. But if you are specific in your words, refer to what’s actually taken place and are sincere, your words will land well and be appreciated more than you might imagine.

The Corporate Leadership Council collected data from more than 90 000 employees in 135 organisations around the world. They found that the number-one imperative for enhancing employee performance was that the manager should provide informal, day-to-day feedback.

The feedback is most potent when it is fair and accurate, comes from a source knowledgeable about the employee’s performance and contains feedback that helps employees do their job better (Managing for High Performance and Retention, 2005 Corporate Executive Board).

The six-criteria approach to creating a desirable workplace is timeless.

It doesn’t matter what technological advances are in store, as long as human beings work, and work in groups with leaders, those leaders would do well to acknowledge their role and responsibility to ensure the six criteria are optimal. Recognition and giving feedback is the number-one imperative.

Going to work and feeling that you are invisible is demeaning. Why would anyone want to work for a boss who makes them feel this way?

You can reach Helena Dolny at

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