This past week, many Americans celebrated Thanksgiving. The national holiday provides a time for reflection and appreciation. We step back and express gratitude for what we have and for the people we love.
Today, the leftovers consumed, the friends and family scattered, we can check the box on giving thanks and jump back into the real work of real life. We have another year before we need to go around the table and tell everyone things that make us grateful.
Having a designated day to do something calls our attention to it. That’s good. The flipside is that observing such a day gives us the sense that we’re done with it.
For leaders, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be one of them.
Thanksgiving – expressing appreciation for people, for commitment or for a job well done – is one of the most overlooked yet most effective leadership tools we have.
Why Don’t We Express More Gratitude at Work?
Genuine gratitude in the workplace is rare. Why? If we apply a classic business tool to it – the cost-benefit analysis – it comes up aces. Thanking people costs nothing, yet delivers a bounty of benefits. So why isn’t everyone doing it?
Expressing gratitude requires slowing down, putting down our devices, shifting gears out of troubleshooting and feeling our emotions. We are conditioned to solve problems, deliver results and keep our emotions in check at work. We’re not taught to pause and connect to how we feel. It’s shocking to many leaders to learn that acknowledging the sincere thanks they feel toward their teams and then sharing it is a meaningful form of value creation. Far from a waste of time, your team’s performance over time may depend precisely on this.
Managers and senior leaders also underestimate the impact of expressing interest in their employees, which goes hand in hand with expressing gratitude to them.
A client of mine who leads a large bank recounted to me what he experienced a few weeks ago when he stopped by an employee’s desk, asked “How are you?” and then complimented a report the employee had prepared for him. He told me he was taken aback by the strength of the reaction. “The person’s whole face changed,” he told me. “I saw for the first time what people call ‘smiling eyes’.”
By showing sincere interest and acknowledging the quality work, my client communicated something deeper than a pat on the back. The employee’s reaction opened his eyes to the power of human connection in a buttoned-up business setting.
“What I really said was, ‘I notice you as a person. I see you. Your efforts here don’t go without notice. You matter. You matter to me.’ I had no idea how empowering it is if someone more senior takes notice of you and cares enough to tell you,” he shared with me.
Expressed gratitude lifts business, unexpressed gratitude damages it.
We often know recognition by its absence. In a gratitude vacuum, motivation evaporates. Productivity slinks into quiet quitting. Excellence fades to mediocrity.
Recall a time you felt unappreciated at work. Perhaps you felt resentment bubbling up as co-workers left to go home and you stayed behind, unnoticed, to make one more revision. Perhaps you seethed quietly as your boss took credit for your work in front of higher ups. Maybe you felt deflated or dismissed, so you resolved not to work so hard for people who didn’t appreciate you.
In moments like those, it was your heart that hurt, even if you don’t think of it like that. Whether you got angry, bitter, defeated or sad, the emotions of rejection cut deeper than the labels and titles we’re assigned on the job. Recognition isn’t a core “employee” need. It is a core human need.
We all have different sides to us – a part that thinks and another that feels, a part that dreams about the future and another that gets things done today. MBA programs taught for decades that business leaders should check their emotions – the part of themselves that feels – at the door. No hearts in the boardroom. No hearts in the conference room. Hearts belong at home.
That worldview no longer dominates.
Among the hard-won lessons of the past few years is the truth that the human heart cannot be left behind when we go to work. We don’t, and can’t, check our emotional needs at the door.
Memes abound about leaders who make potentially valid business decisions but deliver them in heartless ways. Recall Vishal Garg, the CEO of Better.com who fired 900 employees on a Zoom call. He faced massive backlash and not a small dose of mockery over his insensitivity.
In an apology shared publicly following the incident, Garg noted the leadership lesson, saying: “I failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better.” After a leave of absence, Garg began working with an executive coach on his leadership.
More recently, the world is watching Elon Musk’s early days at the helm of Twitter with horror. His erratic, inscrutable leadership choices demonstrate remarkable disregard for the company’s people. While Musk faces tough business decisions, his lack of appreciation for the people who keep his business afloat could accelerate the sinking of the ship rather than save it.
Businesses have reflected since The Great Resignation on how to entice employees back to the office and how to create cultures that appeal to talented people. Helping leaders embrace their genuine feelings of gratitude for their people and encouraging them to express it is one meaningful way to move the needle in the right direction.
When someone does something important for your organization, or demonstrates admirable qualities of character, don’t wait until the next fourth Thursday of November to acknowledge them. Any time between now and then can be a day for giving thanks.