Workers want and need to know their work is appreciated. Showing gratitude to employees is the easiest, fastest, most inexpensive way to boost performance. New research shows that gratitude boosts employee engagement, reduces turnover, and leads team members to express more gratitude to one another—strengthening team bonds.
Debunking Common Myths about Leadership Gratitude
Myth: Fear Is the Best Motivator
Almost no one thinks they lead with fear. Yet there are fear-based managers everywhere, and no one dares tell them the truth. Fear at work is manifest in a myriad of ways. For example, a manager who lacks confidence can spread fear around a workplace as fast as a funky cologne. He might be intimidated by employees who shine and feel it’s necessary to put them in their place.
Myth: People Want Way Too Much Praise These Days
Some rain is good, too much is a flood, right? After visiting hundreds of workplaces all around the world, however, the authors have yet to encounter a place where employees have complained about being overpraised. “I am outta here! Phyllis, pack my things! These SOBs have gone too far with all these plaques and balloons!” Hardly. What’s more typical is that workers feel their efforts are largely overlooked.
Myth: There’s Just No Time
Instead of a productivity suck, gratitude must be seen as a multiplier. When it’s done well, leaders become closer to their people and pay attention to what their employees are contributing, all of which opens the door for people to offer up concerns about problems they’re seeing, ideas they’ve come up with, valuable information from customers and clients, and even mistakes they’ve made or problems they’re running into with their work.
Myth: I’m Not Wired to Feel It
if you’re disposed to think you’re just not cut out for expressing gratitude—that it doesn’t come naturally, at least not at work—then give yourself some credit. You absolutely can get the hang of it. It might feel a little strange at first, and perhaps forced. “Who wants to receive my rote praise?” leaders may complain. But once they start putting a little effort into the practice, they see that even if they’re a tad awkward, people still respond quite well.
Myth: I Save My Praise for Those Who Deserve It
You never know who’s going to be your next superstar. As he was working his way up, retired American Express chairman Ken Chenault told the authors, “The best recognition I received was when someone said to me, ‘I trust your judgment, and you can make that decision.’
Gratitude is not a zero-sum game—there is plenty to go around. The admiration we have for high-performing people and important roles doesn’t have to come at the expense of others on the team.
Myth: It’s All about the Benjamins
While gratitude is not a zero-sum game, compensation almost always is. If someone gets a big raise, then others on the team usually are balanced out with less. And we know those decisions can be extremely hard for a leader. That’s especially true when you know your people are just about killing themselves to hit their goals—sometimes unrealistic ones that were dictated from above. All this makes gratitude all the more meaningful.
Myth: They’ll Think I’m Bogus
When we’re trying to control how others see us, that’s when we usually come across as inauthentic. We also cut ourselves off from important insights into how we’re actually being perceived. If leaders could see themselves on film, tracking the way their teams see them, many of them would be stunned. It would not be a leap to realize that, clearly, their team members would be receptive to a change, even if it doesn’t at first seem the most natural thing in the world.
“If a CEO is grumpy, that becomes the acceptable attitude within the company. If you try to be positive, gracious, approachable, and grateful, it gets multiplied. In our case, by 125,000 people.” – Hubert Joly, Executive Chairman of Best Buy
Leading With Gratitude: 9 Ways To Change The Way You Lead
#1 Solicit and Act on Input
Soliciting and acting upon ideas can raise morale. Research has found workers become more engaged when they see employee ideas being used, and managers, seeing the impact, tend to give their people more authority. General questions (e.g., How can we better “wow” when making deliveries?) allow for open-ended suggestions and blue-sky brainstorming, while more specific inquiries (e.g., How can we cut our fuel costs?) work better if a leader is seeking answers to a more precise need.
#2 Assume Positive Intent
Leaders who assume positive intent often discover that unexpected obstacles were put in employees’ ways. Even if it turns out that someone was at fault, these leaders use mistakes as a chance to teach rather than an opportunity to punish.
If employees are afraid of punitive action, they are more likely to try to cover up problems. Cultures of low trust create too negative an environment for productivity and innovation to flourish. Creativity requires trust.
#3 Walk in Their Shoes
Many leaders know very little about the challenges their people wrestle with in their daily work. They don’t take the time to ask about difficulties their team members may be encountering.
One of the great enablers of authentic gratitude is developing empathy for others. The best way to be truly empathetic is to actually walk in their shoes. One way leaders can bring themselves into employees’ worlds in a much more revealing way is by coaching themselves to regularly ask people about how they’re approaching their work and if they could share some recent accomplishments.
#4 Look for Small Wins
Every small step toward an organization’s goals and values is worthy of acknowledgment. The ongoing, cumulative effect of small outcomes can be significant. Research finds the single most important factor in boosting motivation in the creative process is when employees feel they are making daily progress in meaningful work.
One of the most distinctive attributes of great leaders is they notice and express appreciation for small-scale efforts as much as they celebrate major achievements. This allows them to find ways to inspire all their people to stretch and grow, including the steady performers in their care.
#5 Give It Now, Give It Often, Don’t be Afraid
Some leaders think they’ll stockpile their praise and share it during performance reviews, but many important contributions and day-to-day achievements are lost by then. A reliance on the performance review as a primary means of providing feedback wastes golden opportunities to offer immediate reinforcement of the exact behaviors a leader is looking for.
By checking in with people and helping them see they’ve made appreciable progress each day, leaders can boost energy levels considerably. Frequent gratitude also gives team members perspective that setbacks aren’t the end of the world and can point out achievements—even small ones—they may have overlooked.
#6 Tailor to the Individual
Not everyone in a leader’s care appreciates the same rewards and often values very different things from their leader. Research shows all humans share a group of twenty-three motivators at work. The nuances in a person’s specific nature show up in which of these are most important and the order of priority. Smart leaders use the knowledge of individual motivators to tailor expressions of gratitude to each team member.
To understand the level of reward, decide if the achievement is: 1) a step toward living your values; 2) a one-time, larger step that reinforces your values; 3) an ongoing above-and-beyond demonstration of your values in action; or 4) an achievement that has a significant impact on the bottom line.
#7 Reinforce Core Values
Even though core values may have been communicated to employees, the ideas often don’t come alive in day-to-day behaviors. Today’s workforce is so enamored of aligning their values to the organization’s that 95 percent of job candidates say they believe culture is more important than compensation. Employees want to know 1) who do you profess to be (your brand) and 2) do you live up to what you profess (your culture).
Leaders should rank-order values to help resolve conflicts that may come up for their people. They can also help their people understand common values-driven conflicts and provide ways to deal with them.
#8 Make It Peer-to-Peer
When employees are grateful to each other, they affirm positive concepts typically valued in their colleagues, such as trustworthiness, dependability, and talent. Surveys show most engaged employees agree with the statement “My teammates support each other.” In the best teams, employees feel free to speak up, share ideas, and know they can ask others for help.
Online systems or apps can facilitate peer-to-peer gratitude. Practices to avoid include the use of gamification concepts in which employees are given points for recognizing the work of others. Executives and managers at all levels must also support the program and use it themselves. The process to nominate coworkers should be easy and nonbureaucratic.
#9 Take It Home
Some leaders give their best selves at work but have little left over for the people who should mean the most in their lives. And the opposite is just as common: Leaders are grateful, gracious, and respectful with friends and loved ones while ungrateful on the job.
Make a commitment to give undivided attention to your loved ones, be excited to see them, give immediate positive feedback to family members, be more grateful to your partner, be grateful for obstacles, teach your kids to give, serve together, and write letters of appreciation.