Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Proper Show of Gratitude

Today we Americans will join together as one people to consume the remains of our ancestral totem animal: the turkey.

Yes, I know, you thought that the great American totem was the bald eagle… but, have you ever tried to eat a roasted bald eagle?

At Thanksgiving we express our gratitude for a bountiful harvest. We are especially grateful for the bounty that God gave us… on credit. As long as God, that is, the Fed keeps the credit flowing we are going to be just fine.

We Americans are a grateful lot. We love Thanksgiving, perhaps above all holidays.

Thus, this is a good time to ask how well we show gratitude in our everyday lives.

As the old saying goes, once is not enough. Saying thank-you one day a year does not make you an individual of sterling character. It means that you like a good party.

To build character you need to learn to say thank-you often, sincerely, under the appropriate circumstances. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.

Sue Shellenbarger explained yesterday that American business is suffering from a gratitude deficit. Everyone knows, in the abstract that good management requires frequent expressions of gratitude. 

And yet, we are far more likely to say thank-you to friends, family and neighbors than we are toward the people we work with.

Shellenbarger writes:

The workplace ranks dead last among the places people express gratitude, from homes and neighborhoods to places of worship. Only 10% of adults say thanks to a colleague every day, and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss, according to a survey this year of 2,007 people for the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., a nonprofit organization that sponsors research on creativity, gratitude, freedom and other topics.

Everyone knows that frequent injections of gratitude, especially from the person in charge create a better office culture.

But when you ask why it is expressed so infrequently, the answer seems to be that people do not know how to do it. They fear getting it wrong.

In Shellenbarger’s words:

Some bosses are afraid employees will take advantage of them if they heap on the gratitude. Other managers believe in thank-yous but are nervous about appearing awkward or insincere—or embarrassing the employee they wish to praise.

In truth, getting gratitude right is far more difficult than you think. Saying it the right way to the right person at the right time with the right feeling is a very difficult task.

The best way to understand the problem is to follow Shellenbarger as she outlines the wrong ways to express gratitude.

Relying on consultant Bob Nelson, Shellenbarger outlines the wrong ways to express gratitude.

First, if a manager expresses gratitude in a rote exercise offered to the staff at a designated time, regardless of whether anyone has done anything to deserve it, his expression will sound insincere. 

Second, if a manager offers gratitude promiscuously, it will lose its meaning. When a manager who has never allowed the words thank-you pass his lips reads an article one day and decides to offer effusive expressions of gratitude to everyone all the time, regardless of whether it was deserved, his words will ring hollow.

Third, if a manager qualifies his gratitude by saying that your work was riddled with mistakes he is taking back what he is giving.

Fourth, if the expression is too little too late, it becomes less significant. If the manager waits too long before saying thank-you it will appear to be an afterthought, thus, insincere.

Fifth, if the manager is using thank-you to manipulate an employee, his gratitude is self-interested. If he has an ulterior motive to expressing gratitude-- like trying to induce the person to work late-- than his gratitude is insincere.

Those are the wrong ways to express gratitude. Unfortunately, no one ever learns how to get it right without getting it wrong a few times.

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