What Leaders Miss Most – The Other Half of Thank You

During the holidays a few years ago, I was visiting my parents. It was late in the evening and most everyone had left the festivities and the evening quieted.

I was sitting with my Mom for a moment to catch up when I asked her how she and Dad were. She shrugged and said, “fine.” This is a dirty word, you know. It’s a four letter word. It means I’m really pissed off…and you’ll have to guess why.

At this point, my Mother and Father were married for nearly 40 years. “Fine” was a relative term. Since this was the season to be merry and since I was naturally invested in their well-being, I pointed out a modest event I witnessed earlier that night: My Father actually helped my Mother do the dishes. In 3 decades of my life I don’t think I ever saw this.

But before I go on, you must know them more intimately; they are probably not all that different from you or someone with whom you know or work.

My Mom is the traditional type. She’s organized, results-oriented, and loves lists. She loves lists so much she even has a list to organize her lists – the mother list and her baby lists. Sometimes when she does something that wasn’t on the list, she’ll go back and write it on there just to experience the satisfaction of crossing it off. Know anyone like that?

For the holidays, she invites people over for the big dinner because it’s tradition and “it wouldn’t be the same without them.” The recurrence of tradition takes precedence over the actual people. Don’t believe me? Look no further than how she spends her energy: doing the dishes. That’s right. She’s not with the family because she cannot relax until her work is finished. Of course, she needed to accomplish this before she could enjoy being with everyone – the reason for the dinner in the first place.

My Dad, on the other hand, is the more romantically inclined of the two. He spends his spare hours writing, dreaming, trying to assist others with his business. Naturally, when dinner is over he is right where he wants to be – with the family. It’s not that he likes them more, it’s simply that he didn’t need to spend his energy cleaning up right away. But this time was different. He got up and helped her. I couldn’t believe it. I never saw it coming.

When speaking with my Mom later that evening, I pointed this out, noting that this was a positive sign. Immediately she chimed in, “Yeah, but he’ll never do it again.”

I replied, “Why do you think that?”

She countered, “Because he doesn’t care.”

Me:Shrugs.

So, instead of playing son, I decided it was time for some good old leadership coaching…after all, #mothers are really just executives in plain clothes.

I thought about why there was a problem here. So, I considered the simple concept of reward. “Well,” I asked, “Did you thank him?”

“Of course I thanked him,” she replied, almost offended I’d even ask such a thing.

What did you thank him for?” I returned.

Then silence…confusion…visible frustration.

“What do you mean, what did I thank him for?” she shot back. “I said ‘thank you,'” she repeated.

“Thank you for what?” I nudged.

At this point she was fidgeting because she hadn’t considered this (and she was getting upset with me). After a moment of mentally digging, she replied, ” I said, thank you for helping me finish the dishes.”

I replayed this in my head and tried to make sense of it. “Thank you for helping me finish the dishes…” She thanked him for what she wanted, not why he did it.

My mother is results oriented – an achiever. Her goal was to accomplish the task. My father is relationship-driven. His goal, his reason for spending his time and energy, was to help her, not to do a chore.

To acknowledge his personal motivation, she could have easily said, “Thank you for helping me finish the dishes, it really made me feel good.”

Leaders say “Thank You,” right?

It’s called reward and recognition, a simple leadership concept that allows us to acknowledge the work of others while – hopefully – re-instilling a sense of motivation to repeat the good performance. It’s a must-do because it’s the right thing to do, for many obvious reasons.

Yet saying “Thank You” on its own is only half the task. The other half is something only the best leaders truly get. Just six words could have made all the difference.

Too often, we only thank people for what we want, simply because we don’t know any better. We are so focused on our own goals and aspirations that we fail to take a moment to take time to recognize why people do the work they do, especially if it is not their own.

Most professionals are equipped to do this already, receiving loads of leadership and personality training throughout their careers. I know this because I’ve trained over 40,000 of them. But more often than not, they make the huge mistake of being dismissive and relating these trainings to only themselves and their personal goals. Instead we should think about these as opportunities to help us lead and improve our interactions with others. Consequently, our goals and aspirations will virtuously advance, for when you help another person up a hill, don’t you end up there yourself?

Great leaders don’t miss this. It becomes almost second nature. They take time to understand the people around them, what drives them, and then they put effort into acknowledging that others’ time and energy is as valuable as the results they produce. They adapt to others, changing their body language and the words they use. They acknowledge why people get out of bed every day and frame in it the importance of shared goals.

This is a leadership lesson anyone can practice. No position necessary. After all, if my mother can be a better leader this easily, you can too.

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