Gratitude is a Key Leadership Trait

On this day of Thanksgiving, and every day, it is crucial to reflect and give thanks. Typically, we show our gratitude to our family and friends, even acknowledging any good fortune that may have come our way. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review survey of more than 7500 managers, 21% said they avoid giving negative feedback. An even greater percentage (37%) admitted to not giving positive reinforcement. Reflecting on how positive feedback makes us personally feel will help us better understand how by giving another person thanks will inspire them to be better. Thinking back on times in which our teammates, manager, or even parent may have praised us for a job well done usually gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment. So, it stands to reason that when we can extend recognition to others, it may have a positive result such as a better team or environment in which to work.

The Challenge
Years ago, I was asked to take over the management of a department and turn it around due to poor morale. This was an “assignment” as soon as I received my MBA and one that I wholeheartedly accepted. It was as if my new credentials would magically give me the capacity to guide, energize, and lead the team to happiness and success. With my lack of experience in affecting morale and not to mention being only one person, I would have to gain the confidence of the team. I began by gathering 30 employees in a conference room and making it clear that I was there to understand the issues at hand. My goal was to truly make a difference.

The Feedback
Compiling everyone’s feedback and asking them to prioritize what they believed to be the most important item to tackle allowed the team to direct their own destiny. One of the topics that was on top of their mind happened to be gratitude. The associates shared that upper management was not recognizing when the team members were doing a good job or simply saying, “thank you.” At least this was the perspective of the department associates. When I reviewed the findings with management, they expressed that they often did thank the associates in the department. It quickly became clear management was not doing their job effectively when they shared how they were praising the associates and in what situations. We happened to have been in a fast-paced, race-to-deadlines type of environment. Except for an annual review, management was thanking and praising the associates while both individuals were in route to other meetings. This was an “in passing, on-the-go” kind of meeting, never with intent or true purpose of giving praise. Therefore, gratitude was being lost when any was given. Senior management thought they were doing a great job in saying the words but because of the focus and being in the moment of something completely different, the associate was not receiving the message.

Forms of Gratitude
Gratitude comes in many other forms such as a formal Employee of the Month program or even an informal fun surprise such as giving the person a $10 gift card for coffee or publicly thanking the person in a meeting or via email. We quickly adopted a full recognition program that was extremely successful. In addition, more attention was given to our communication style in those impromptu situations so that the associate was aware of the praise being given.

This soon created an environment in which others outside our department wanted to join and the existing department associates involved in its transformation wanting to come back every day. None of this could have been possible if upper management had not been receptive to the change. Recognizing the need and allowing for the change was the first steps into getting back on track. However, the fact that leadership also adopted the new program through demonstration was tantamount in the overall long-term success of affecting change in what was considered a previously less than happy team. You may have heard the adage, “Praise in public and critic in private.” Giving gratitude, praise, or recognition is a very valuable leadership trait ( It promotes individual contribution, teamwork, confidence, and pride. All beneficial to the company’s overall health and success.

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