Tuesday, August 18, 2020
Leadership advice and practical insights

For leaders wanting to attract and retain exceptional talent and better engage their people, authors Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick say the solution might be right under their noses. Showing gratitude to employees is the easiest, fastest, and most inexpensive way to boost performance and transform the way organizations operate.

In Leading with Gratitude, they outline eight practices leaders can take to show employees and colleagues they are valued. This book is filled with practical advice and insights from corporate leaders who have successfully incorporated gratitude into how they lead. The timing of its publication could not be more opportune. COVID-19 and the pandemic response along with the personal and economic impacts of both have really changed the leadership calculus with much discussion on the importance of resiliency and flexibility. Along with being flexible and resilient, leaders must also recognize how this "new normal" is affecting their staff. Elton and Gostick can help private sector and public sector leaders alike navigate this uncertain time by emphasizing the importance of expressing gratitude towards those who work, day in and day out, to execute a leaders' vision.

Several months ago, Chester Elton joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss their book and underscore how leading with gratitude can help both leaders and staff make it through uncertain times. Here are 5 key insights derived from our conversation.

Key Insights

1. Seven myths that hold you back from leading with gratitude

Elton and Gostick identify seven ingratitude myths that are holding leaders back from recognizing the power and value of gratitude. Some still believe that fear is the best motivator and that people today want way too much praise. From the research, many leaders think there just isn't time to do it or that they aren't wired to be this way or that they should save the praise for those who deserve it most -- acting as if this is a zero-sum game. While not ignoring legitimate concerns around authenticity, other self-limiting myths basically discount the intrinsic value of leading with gratitude because expressing gratitude is cheap that these are only words and sentiments and people care more about what the authors' call the "benjamins" or money. More importantly, what if expressing gratitude towards others comes across as insincere, fake. Leaders run the risk of losing credibility and appearing manipulative. These myths create what the authors call the ingratitude gap that chasm between awareness of gratitude's benefits and the failure of so many leaders to show it properly causing them to withhold thanks when it could be a strategic differentiator.

2. Gratitude practices are categorized as "seeing" and "expressing"

Seeing involves ways leaders can assure they’ll spot great work being done. Expressing covers the best ways Elton and Gostick have captured how managers voice and show their thanks. The authors hope leaders adopt some of these practices right away, but there’s no need to try to tackle everything at once. Figuring it out is part of the fun. Find a few ways that are most natural to you, and perhaps one or two that require you to stretch. The leaders highlighted in this book from Alan Mulally of Ford, Hubert Joly of Best Buy, or Ken Chenault of American Express all have been remarkably innovative in their approaches and love finding little things they can do that are simple but mean so much to their people. They truly derive a great sense of joy from their gratitude practices.

3. Solicit and act on input while assuming positive intent and looking for small wins

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. Cultures of low trust create too negative an environment for productivity and innovation to flourish. Creativity requires trust. Many of us have grown up conditioned to assume the negative. Leaders who assume positive intent often discover that no matter the situation you face, you always have a choice. Once you see that choice, take a pause. In that pause, make up a better story that doesn’t make the other person a villain and you a victim.

Every small step toward an organization’s goals and values is worthy of acknowledgement. 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.

4. Give it now, give if often, don’t be afraid

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. Rewarded behavior gets repeated. Delaying expressions of gratitude prevents effective positive reinforcement. Gratitude does not get old if it’s aligned with what the leader and the team value most.  “Thank you” is the only response necessary to gratitude. When we are ungrateful for other’s gratitude, it diminishes the gift, insults the giver, and the gifts dry up.

5. Gratitude is not simply about being nice

The most important take away of all is that leading with gratitude isn't just about being nice; it's about being smart -- really smart -- and it's a skill that everyone can easily learn. For some leaders, learning to practice the soft stuff like this might feel too mushy and touchy-feely. It might be tempting to tune this out as irrelevant to the bottom line, especially for those who need to hear it the most. But making human connections is the job of leaders, and helping employees feel valued and providing a little boost of joy at work can make a huge difference.

Personal stories always speak persuasively. Elton and Gostick share an insight that Best Buy Executive Chairman Hubert Joly told them as they wrapped up their interview. Joly paused and said, “If a CEO is a grumpy ass, that becomes the acceptable attitude within the company. If you are positive, gracious, approachable, and grateful, it gets multiplied.”

Many of the insights and practical advice offered in Leading with Gratitude are as applicable to government executives as they are to the private sector leaders profiled in the work. Perhaps given today's new reality and the many of the new stressors and strains facing government workers at all levels just saying thank you and acknowledging their work may be more needed and far more rewarding than we may ever realize.

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