Why Do so Many Leaders Suck at Gratitude

By March 5, 2020No Comments

Over the past decade we’ve surveyed more than a million employees in countries around the world, and “feeling appreciated for my work” is universally one of the lowest scoring items on just about every engagement survey. That’s why, for the past three years in writing Leading with Gratitude, we asked a lot of successful CEOs why we are so bad at this stuff.

The leaders we interviewed are practitioners of gratitude. These women and men are tremendously busy, many of them run multi-billion-dollar enterprises. Yet they took the time to talk with us about how gratitude has helped them transform their businesses and their lives because they wanted us to let other leaders—(i.e., you)—know how essential it is to be grateful to those in our care.

To be fair, in our work consulting for twenty years we’ve rarely found bosses who are intentionally bullying or negligent when it comes to their employees (a few yes, but most are good people). Most also know that showing gratitude to their teams is championed as an essential part of good management. And yet when we interview their people, we hear employees say they feel unappreciated. Some of them claim they actually feel under assault. What’s the deal?

Our research shows that there is a staggering gratitude deficit in the work world. Meanwhile, 81 percent of working adults say they would work harder if their boss were more grateful for their work, and a whopping 96 percent of men and 94 percent of women acknowledge that a boss who expresses gratitude is more likely to be successful.

Why is there a chasm between knowing that gratitude works and the failure of so many leaders to actually practice it . . . or do it well?

We sat down for a few hours with Alan Mulally, the man who saved Ford Motor Company. The retired CEO said that leadership “is about people. You either understand that on a really fundamental level, or you don’t. And if you do, you create an environment where people know what the plan is, what the status is, and areas that need special attention. Then it’s all about appreciating them, respecting them, and thanking them at every step of the way.”

Just days after his retirement as chairman and CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault explained to us, “This view of ‘I want to be very stingy with gratitude’ gets confused to mean I’m not being demanding. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You can be very demanding and bestow gratitude very often and be authentic.”

Hubert Joly, who led Best Buy through a remarkable transformation as chairman and CEO, said in our interview, “A quirk of many successful people is they like to show they are the smartest person in the room. They are often happy to take all the help they can get without giving credit to others.”

The bottom line: There are very few high-performance leaders we interviewed—who maintained outstanding results year over year—who didn’t have higher than average ratings in recognition/appreciation/gratitude.

So we ask, “How can you show your people you’re grateful for them?” 

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