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In Times of Crisis, a Little Thanks Goes a Long Way


May. 25, 2020 Harvard Business Review

The chatter in our cafeterias and conference rooms is replaced by the disquiet we’re experiencing inside our socially-distanced bubbles. From general malaise to specific maladies, many employees are afflicted by stress and anxiety that make brushing teeth and cooking a meal feel like the day’s crowning achievements. My clients, executives in a variety of organizations, feel overworked, underappreciated, and cut off from their colleagues. While there’s no panacea for these current ills, regularly practicing gratitude can help.

Research clearly indicates expressing gratitude is beneficial to our health and well-being. We’re happier when we’re grateful. During a crisis, taking the time to thank others is vital to dampen loneliness, amp up social connections, and generate generosity. Yet, while the benefits of gratitude are widely acknowledged, we feel thankful a lot more often than we express it — and it seems to be least often expressed at work.

As managers, it’s essential to express gratitude to your employees, especially now. For one thing, being thankful to your team is the right thing to do. People are battling fears about the pandemic and juggling home and work in close proximity. Almost every employee needs to hear that their dedication is noticed and it matters. What’s more, gratitude is proven to show improvements in self-esteem, achieving career goals, decision making, productivity, and resilience.

Yet for busy and stressed-out leaders, it can be easy to put gratitude at the end of a to-do list. During our last coaching session, Mandeep, a senior academic executive, said, “I’m so busy fighting fires from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. that I don’t have time to acknowledge the work my team is doing.” Recognizing that expressing appreciation is more important than ever, we devised five strategies for Mandeep and his organization.

Bring people together for a gratitude shower. Every evening at 7 p.m., people in my neighborhood (and in cities around the world) gather on our balconies and in the streets to applaud essential workers for their sacrifices. Mandeep created the organizational equivalent of this activity by asking everyone to join a live chat at 4 p.m. daily for exactly two minutes. In this time, team members type out compliments for colleagues. Since these notes are written and saved in a chat, people can scroll through past kudos if they miss a session. Use this kind of appreciative communication to foster community by coming together for a daily dose of applause.

Tailor your thanks. Research shows gratitude strengthens relationships much more when it is conveyed as appreciation for what the other person did, rather than about the way it benefited you. For example, “Your creativity sparkled in the virtual happy hour you organized for the team. By creating the theme and sharing ideas for how everyone could follow it, you added a unique touch.”

Take it one step further by understanding how people like to be acknowledged. One tool is the 5 Love Languages. While this framework was originally designed for couples, you can modify it for the workplace. One of your colleagues might respond to words of affirmation, for instance. In that case, send her a carefully crafted email or handwritten note. For those whose preference is acts of service, help them with a research project. To emphasize quality time, schedule a virtual one-on-one with a direct report where you set aside business discussions and take a cue from them on other meaningful topics.

Make them the star attraction. During this pandemic, everyone is going above and beyond. Some days it takes extraordinary effort to perform even the ordinary activity. This is especially the case for invisible work — tasks we take for granted or underestimate the amount of effort involved. Celebrate unsung heroes and feature them prominently in companywide communications. Most executives are communicating weekly with their teams. Why not start each week’s missive calling out the effort expended by someone who seldom takes center stage?

For example, one client showcased the project coordinator who made an offsite engaging through the innovative use of technology: “Thank you, Max, for creating breakout rooms, team colors, unusual signs, and a whiteboard — all through the power of your keyboard, screen, and resourcefulness.” Shining a spotlight on usually unseen accomplishments boosts productivity and increases empathy and understanding about the workload we might unintentionally unleash on others.

Popularize positivity. Research shows a recipient of thankfulness will be more generous and helpful to others. To spark this, create a pay-it-forward movement in your organization. Encourage those who have been thanked to craft a gesture of appreciation for someone else. This spreads the uplift while reducing the pressure on one manager trying to thank multitudes of people. It also expands visibility of individuals and their praiseworthy work.

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