It’s about people, Alan Mulally told leadership experts Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. “You either understand that on a really fundamental level, or you don’t,” he is quoted as saying in their book, Leading With Gratitude. “And if you do, then you love them up,” he says, adding that this means telling them everything that is going on, creating an environment where people know what the plan is, how it is going and what needs special attention. “Then it’s all about appreciating them, respecting them and thanking them at every step of the way.”
The book quotes several other executives with similar approaches, including the former head of American Express, Ken Chenault, and Jonathan Klein, chairman of Getty Images. However, it also suggests that many leaders do not understand what its authors see as one of the easiest, fastest and cheapest ways for managers to boost performance and employee engagement.
Gostick and Elton seek to address this “gratitude gap” by setting out eight business practices that help leaders from believing that showing gratitude is somehow a sign of weakness or an indication that they are not sincere or authentic to realising that showing that they are grateful for excellent work not only makes employees feel more valued and happier but also improves customer satisfaction.
The eight practices are:
Solicit and Act on Input. This not a new concept, but few managers are good at encouraging employees to make suggestions and then acting on them. While it is important to be open about why some ideas are adopted and others are not, Gostick and Elton claim that research suggests that workers become more engaged when they see employee ideas being used.
Assume Positive Intent. Leaders who assume positive intent often find that unintended obstacles were put in employees’ ways. They use mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than to punish. Just as fear or reprisals tends to lead to cover-ups, an atmosphere os trust is more likely to stimulate creativity.
Walk In Their Shoes. One of the great enablers of authentic gratitude, say Gostick and Elton, is empathy for others. One way that leaders can walk in the shoes of employees is to regularly ask people how they are approaching their work and if they can share some recent accomplishments.
Look For Small Wins. Every step toward an organisation’s goals is worthy of acknowledgement and one of the most distinctive attributes of great leaders, say the authors, is that they notice and express appreciation for small-scale efforts as much as they celebrate major achievements.
Give It Now, Give It Often, Don’t Be Afraid. Relying on performance reviews as a main means of providing feedback wastes great opportunities to offer immediate reinforcement of the sorts of behavior a leader is looking to encourage. By checking in with people regularly and helping them see that they are making good progress leaders are able to boost energy levels. Moreover, rewarded behaviour gets repeated, so delaying expressions of gratitude reduces the opportunities for positive reinforcement.
Tailor to the Individual. Not everyone appreciates the same rewards. While research indicates that humans share 23 motivators at work, views as to which of these are most important vary between individuals. “Smart leaders,” say Gostick and Elton, “use the knowledge of individual motivations to tailor expressions of gratitude to each team member.”
Reinforce Core Values. Employees often find it hard to connect organizational values with day-to-day actions, so expressions of gratitude are a good way of communicating why the ideas set out in mission statements and sets of values are so important.
Make it Peer-to-Peer. When employees are grateful to each other they reinforce such ideas as trustworthiness, dependability and talent. Surveys show that engaged employees tend to believe that their team mates support each other. Peer recognition can also help build bonds across the organization and break down silos. But leaders need to avoid trying to be too clever through such practices as giving points to employees for recognising the work of others because these can be manipulated.
Since many people believe that one effect of the pandemic has been to draw communities together and — give or take the odd flouting of restrictions aimed at stemming the advance of the virus — to make people kinder towards each other, it could be that gratitude will become more prominent in the workplace. Particularly since for many people just getting the job done while working from home and juggling child care, home schooling and the rest is worthy of thanks.
But Gostick and Elton are at pains to point out that leading in this way is not merely a question of wandering about the workplace, slapping people on the back (figuratively speaking) and handing out praise. It is not just about giving credit where it’s due, it is also about knowing where it is due, they write. It involves carefully observing what employees are doing and sincerely seeking to understand the challenges they face. On the other hand, managers who resist this approach miss out on finding out what is happening. They do not understand why people are not performing as well as they might. As is often the case with management, treating people better brings a host of advantages — and helps explain why some organizations fare better than others.