While Thanksgiving in the U.S. is celebrated with sports events, family dinners, and time off from work, its real purpose is to reflect on everything that we have to be thankful for – such as health, family, material possessions, and general success. It’s also a good reminder that “thankfulness” and “appreciation” are important managerial behaviors in effective organizations – behaviors that need to be fostered throughout the year, not just when there’s a holiday.
There are actually two kinds of appreciative behaviors that managers need to develop, interpersonal and organizational. Interpersonal appreciation is the day-to-day ability to genuinely and graciously thank other people for what they do. This may sound like Etiquette 101, and we assume it’s the basis for most of our interactions in organizations. Unfortunately, it’s a behavior that’s too often forgotten in the heat of battle, the tension of deadlines, or the routine performance of repetitive tasks. In fact, many managers seem to think that a salary and a steady job are the only thanks that subordinates need.
The reality is that all of us need affirmation and positive feedback, at least occasionally. Without it, it’s easy to lose self-confidence (“Did I make the right call?”) or to become cynical (“Nobody cares whether I work hard or not”). More importantly, without some measure of day-to-day appreciation it’s difficult to build relationships and trust, which are essential to a well-functioning workplace.
In fairness to managers, neglecting to give interpersonal thanks is usually unintentional, particularly for the busy and overwhelmed. When someone points out to them that a “thank you” is needed, they usually comply. The challenge though is how to make the process of giving thanks more routine, so that it occurs without a reminder. One way to do this is to build a “thanks step” into your project plans; another is to periodically bring your team together to celebrate and appreciate what’s been accomplished. And of course, as some managers do, you can always put a post-it note on your desk as a reminder to say “thank you.”
The second type of thanksgiving is appreciating how effectively your organization solves problems and gets things done. Many managers have a tendency to focus on the things that are not working well, the shortfalls and the misses. On the other hand, much of the power and potential in organizations is revealed by its success stories. By identifying these vignettes and shining a spotlight on them, managers can help to tease out important lessons, reinforce innovation, and unlock tremendous value. The appreciative inquiry movement started by my former colleagues at Case Western Reserve University has demonstrated that this approach can not only improve corporate functioning, but also facilitate social innovation. Similarly, an approach called positive deviance shows that finding people who succeed, when everyone else is struggling, can be a key to large-scale innovation.
It’s wonderful to have a holiday dedicated to giving thanks. But perhaps if all of us were more thankful and appreciative throughout the year, we’d have much more to be thankful for.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.