I have been in technology management for more than 20 years now and have worked in a wide variety of shops, and I think I’ve identified a key element that creates a good leader, and that is gratefulness.
Gratefulness Empowers Recognition
Everyone knows that “employee recognition” is important for morale; any company cites it as a priority whether they are really doing it or not. Sometimes it just gets forgotten – but sometimes there’s excuses given not to do it, concerns that it “sounds artifical” or that “they get thanks in form of their salary” or “people will be uncomfortable or jealous.” And some people honestly have a hard time doing it.
I’ve found that those that cultivate an actual spirit of gratefulness within them for other peoples’ work, especially for those who work for you and the sweat of their brow contributes to your success and growth, have an easier time of it.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The classic Dale Carnegie book How To Win Friends and Influence People is often categorized as a “sales book.” It’s not, it’s way more profound than that and deserves a place in any leader’s library. In its introduction there’s explicitly a story of a man with 314 employees who did nothing but criticize them, then studied the book’s principles, and subsequently turned around his management strategy so he had 314 friends and not 314 enemies, leading to both increased happiness and increased profitability. And Part 2 of the book quickly gets to the “how” – it starts with “Become genuinely interested in other people” and ends with “Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.”
I don’t think it’s a shocking revelation that gratefulness leads to better recognition and therefor to better morale, but what I want to get across here is that even if you’re not good at that out of the gate, it can be learned.
And once you learn it, you get more help from other people.
I personally grew up as a very introverted person who was happy alone and on the computer, and not being very interested in others. But in my early career I quickly saw that was holding me back. I wanted to change it so I read How To Win Friends and Influence People and tried to put it into action. Awkwarly and self-consciously at first, of course.
Then something strange started happening to me. People I didn’t know would turn and talk to me in the elevator! I was, frankly, shocked. Generally in my life up to that point, in public I left people alone and they left me alone. I came to the realization that even my demeanor had changed and was more open somehow, and it was causing people I didn’t even know and wasn’t intending to interact with to feel like they could interact with me. And not to hassle me, but to help me.
Ungratefulness Leads To Bad Decisions
For many years I thought that gratefulness was just something that made you friendlier and made recognition easier and so was good in the long term. But then I worked at a startup where the CEO had a deep, fundamental lack of gratefulness, and I saw how that leads to critically bad decisonmaking.
Because people, and people’s work, have value – not in some hug-filled hippie sense, but in a very tangible sense. At the company in question the CEO came to me several times wanting to fire an engineer who had legit written 80% of the working product code in the shop “because he doesn’t think architect level.” He ousted a co-founder who was the only person who had actually brought in sales for the company. So years later it was a startup that had trouble even creating a shipping product and certainly wasn’t growing revenue, and had – seriously estimating – about 300% employee turnover in its lifetime. He sabotaged his own company because he couldn’t look at even objective value creation (working code! shipping product! sales revenue!) and value those who generate it at all.
That really made me stop and think. The stereotype of the ungrateful leader is one that only values hard objective results and “is mean” to people otherwise, but my experience has led me to the conclusion that’s a false dichotomy – if you are unable to see value you’re going to be unable to see it whether it’s in a person or in github or on a ledger book. Especially in a sector where that value is being created by the skilled workers!
Instead, you want to train yourself to see value so that you can gather more of it and help it grow! It’s not just being a kind leader because that’s “in” this decade, gratefulness is actually a strength you can develop that helps you make effective decisions.