Be gracious and express gratitude regularly
I was a child who hated writing “thank you” cards. They felt impersonal and perfunctory and took SO much time to write. While I’m still terrible at remembering to write them, I have discovered the power of those two words and have come to believe that expressing gratitude is an essential, often underutilized, leadership tool. I have made extraordinary efforts to incorporate an “attitude of gratitude” into all areas of my life and believe that it has not only benefited the people around me but has also had a positive effect on my personal well-being.
Leaders do not only express gratitude after big events or during holidays when it is most easily remembered. Leaders express gratitude constantly and specifically, recognizing both small and large, tangible and intangible contributions. “Thank you for getting this to me before the deadline. Now I can make it home at a reasonable time tonight!” or “Wow! Thanks so much for staying late last night. This is going to be so helpful for today’s presentation” or “I am so grateful for your attention to detail. I know I can count on you” or “This is amazing, and I feel lucky to have somebody on my team who can produce such strong reports so quickly” or “Thank you for always having a smile on your face. It helps us all stay positive!” As a result of specific and timely expressions of gratitude, people feel more appreciated and that their work has value. Many do not take the time to say, “thank you,” perhaps believing that it is a given. Therefore, when we go out of our way to acknowledge our people, it carries a large amount of weight and helps us build trust and respect. Afterwards, our people might even put in more effort because it feels like there is a reward for such effort. I know personally that I am much more willing to put in extra hours and energy if I know that there will be some degree of recognition attached. Of course, praise and a “thank you” cannot and should not be anyone’s sole motivation to work hard, but it undeniably helps.
We do not want our people to be left wondering about our appreciation or our feelings about their work. If we do not close the communication loop by providing specific and authentic feedback and/or gratitude, people may question their contributions. I remember a time when I was doing a check-in with a staff member and I thanked her deeply and sincerely for always being on time and holding her colleagues accountable. She smiled and innocently responded, “I try my best. I wasn’t sure you noticed.” She did not mean this as a criticism, but I took it to heart. After that conversation, I began going out of my way to make sure every staff person was noticed every day. If I knew I wasn’t going to have time to speak to somebody in person, I began leaving post-it notes saying, “thank you” on their desks or folders. I began incorporating shout-outs into every staff meeting, beginning every email with recognition or acknowledgment, and ending every meeting with an expression of genuine gratitude for some contribution whether large or small. My staff knew that I was there for them, that I saw them, and that I appreciated them even when they messed up. In my first job out of graduate school before which I had never led a staff team, this was the not-so-secret secret to my success. My skills and knowledge took me far, but I truly believe that gratitude and sincere care for the people I had the honor of leading, took me the extra mile.
To make practices of gratitude most effective I have found that three things are necessary. First, gratitude must be authentic. If you don’t feel thankful, don’t try to say, “thank you.” This is a sure way to deteriorate trust and make people feel undervalued. Second, gratitude must be personalized. If people hear you say the same thing to others or you say the same thing over and over, it can come across as “a line” rather than an honest reflection of thanks. And third, gratitude must be specific. We can’t just say “thank you,” and expect people to know what we are thanking them for. In all the examples of gratitude listed previously in this section, there are specific actions for which the speaker is grateful (timely completion of work, attentiveness to detail, staying late, commitment, high quality work, and remaining positive). This is effective because we do not want our people to have to wonder about our feelings or perceptions and we want them to be able to replicate whatever it is that we are grateful for.
In the end, gratitude without authenticity, personalization, and specificity is more lip-service than anything else, but we have to start somewhere and, in my experience, practicing gratitude makes it easier and more natural to express gratitude. There will be times when we forget and times when we fall short. Yet, I believe that even trying improves our leadership capabilities, helps us promote love and commitment wherever we lead, and allows us to frame our lives and work in more positive and optimistic ways. Graciousness reinforces a virtuous and powerful cycle wherein both accomplishments and people are named and celebrated, and in my opinion fueling and perpetuating that cycle is one of the most auspicious outcomes a leader can achieve.
Over the course of my life, I have been privileged to work with and be mentored by several tremendous leaders who have played a significant role in developing my leadership style and philosophies. I have also learned a lot about leadership from people who truly had/have no idea how to effectively lead. There have been managers who put self or outcomes over the dynamics and functioning of the team. There have been supervisors who made empty promises or tip-toed around difficult conversations. There have been executives who hid their true selves under synthetic cloaks of political agendas and who they thought they needed to be. There have been “leaders” who pretended to have all the answers or who were convinced that they were always right. There was a boss who refused to make investments in my growth or development. And there have been many “superiors” who only expressed gratitude when it served them. While working with and for these people was undeniably challenging, I am grateful for the experiences that have shown me the negative effects of bad or nonexistent leadership, for the moments when my “leaders” made me want to quit, retreat, or launch an outright rebellion. I have experienced firsthand the power and feelings of invincibility generated when guided by a true leader, and the defenselessness of being directed by a self-centered, deceiving, inauthentic, unyielding, or unloving person. I strive, and will continue to strive, to be the leader the former taught me to be and the leader the latter taught me not to be. I have not been and will not be perfect, and I know there is much more to learn and that I will never be done growing as a leader. I am grateful for the patience and compassion given by the people with whom I have worked in the past and with whom I will work in the future. I thank you for loving me and helping me grow.