No Thanks

A few years ago I facilitated an executive offsite for the leaders of a successful software company. Conversation throughout the morning had been polite and somewhat productive, but there was an overly formal stiffness about the group that indicated the presence of a lingering issue. There was something going on in this group that nobody seemed willing to talk about.

The temperature in the room continued to drop as the CEO thanked the team for their talents and strong work that had allowed the company to do so many wonderful things. These weren’t empty words—his praise had come from a place of heartfelt honesty and gratitude, yet the rest of his team appeared increasingly uncomfortable as he went on. I was a bit confused, and could tell that I wasn’t alone. Clearly this was not the response the CEO had expected. He began to flounder a bit in the uneasy silence.

I told the group that I sensed tension in the room, and asked if anybody was willing to share what was causing it. After what seemed like a lifetime of silence, one person finally spoke up.

“You weren’t talking about me just now,” she said to the CEO. Noting his look of confusion, she continued.

“All of those nice things you just said to the group…I know you meant them, so it makes me feel bad…because I know it can’t be me you’re referring to. I’ve never gotten the impression that you found my skills or work to be anything more than just adequate.”

The stunned silence in the room was absolute. I watched as the expression on the CEO’s face turned from one of confusion to shock. I could sense his struggle as he searched for a response, but before he was able to find one another voice chimed in, “I was feeling the exact same thing.”

“Does anybody else feel this way?” the CEO asked. Slowly heads around the room began to nod. We’d hit a nerve. As it turned out, nobody was under the impression that they deserved praise. Nearly every person in the room believed that they must be the weak link—the sole underperforming outsider who’d never received a “thank you”, a pat on the back, or a “job well done” previous to that meeting.

We spent the next several hours discussing all the things that had happened (and had not happened) that had resulted in the group being where they were that day.

Gratitude is an inexhaustible resource.

Leaders consistently underestimate the powerful effect that gratitude can have on people. When I work with individuals who aren’t happy in their jobs, the primary reason for their dissatisfaction is almost always that they don’t feel valued. The kicker is that in nearly every case these are individuals who bring a HUGE amount of value to their organizations. When this kind of dissatisfaction starts to happen on an organizational level it leads to low employee morale, and high turnover—problems that come with very real (and very high) costs.

In the case of the executive team, an atmosphere of zero positive feedback had led each team member to believe that they were only doing an adequate job, when in fact they were doing very well. It is a testament to this group’s talents that they were able to perform at such a high level while still feeling very unappreciated, but I wonder—what might they have accomplished had they felt more valued all along?

The best leaders know that gratitude is a free resource that should be used early and often. By making employees feel valued, we grow their intrinsic motivation to do good work. A little gratitude can go a very long way.

Showing gratitude and rewarding mediocrity are not the same.

I often hear from managers that they have no intention of rewarding people for simply showing up to do the jobs they are paid to do. While I don’t disagree, this attitude is an overcorrection. The perceptions many leaders have of the millennial workforce have hardened some to the point where they opt to show no gratitude rather than risk caving to what they see as an entitled mindset. As a result, everybody suffers.

So, when should a person show gratitude? 1) When it is earned—and I’m here to tell you, it’s earned more often than you think, and 2) When it is sincerely given.

When/how is it earned? That’s up to you, but I’d challenge you to change your mindset if you are one of those hardened souls. Instead of worrying about showing too much gratitude, worry instead about showing too little. There is little, if any risk, to overdoing it (I’ve never heard of a company brought to its knees because of too much gratitude). As for sincerity, this should be a no brainer—nobody wants a forced thank-you or one that isn’t genuine.

People aren’t mind readers.

“Have you specifically told [insert name here] how much you appreciate the work that they do?”

“Well, no. But I’m sure they know.”

No. They don’t know. I promise you they don’t.

People are funny creatures. In the absence of positive information, we often fill the void with something negative. So that great employee who you’ve never recognized? They aren’t likely to recognize and celebrate their greatness on their own. They are more likely wondering what they aren’t doing well enough to warrant recognition in the first place.

As it turned out, this was the case with the executive team. The CEO wasn’t at all opposed to recognizing his team members or praising their efforts. He just assumed that they already knew how he felt.

I talk about feedback a lot in these posts. It’s easy to focus on “negative” feedback because it’s the hardest to process—it takes a lot of effort to give it or receive it. That being the case, positive feedback often doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, but it is no less important. We have a duty to let people know in a constructive and factual way when they they miss the mark, and we have the same exact duty to our employees when they exceed our expectations.

When we expect people to read our minds they will often fail, and worse, come to a negative conclusion that doesn’t really exist. It’s much easier to tell people how we feel—and selfishly, it’s very satisfying to see firsthand how a little gratitude can transform people for the better.

So while giving thanks may be all the rage for this week, never forget the power of gratitude. It is impactful, it is inexhaustible, and it’s free to use. More importantly, it may prove to be the driving factor that takes your team from doing work that is “good” to work that is truly exceptional.