I love Thanksgiving.  But I wonder why so many of us wait for the third Thursday of November to express gratitude. God must surely end the day exhausted by the millions of people giving ‘thanks’ because the day requires it.

When one institutionalizes something special, it becomes routine.   Corporate recognition programs are great examples of well-intended attempts to “automate” what should be meaningful interactions between colleagues.  In my opinion, the ability of a leader to affirm others authentically is one of the most profound skills of effective leadership and one of the least mastered.

Two daughters, two different outcomes

Last week, I Skyped my 22 year-old daughter who is in her second month teaching English in Thailand.  Frustration was written across her face as she pleaded, “If only somebody could give me feedback about how I’m teaching and whether or not I’m meeting their expectations!  That would make all the difference!”  Haley teaches 19 different classes to about 500 non-English speaking children each week in an underfunded school.  When she started, her orientation consisted of the Thai version of the word “Go!”  The feedback she gets falls short of even that.

By contrast, my older daughter, Gillian, is a science teacher in a wilderness program marketed to schools across North Carolina. Their success depends on providing an engaging learning experience for middle-schoolers, delivered by young, highly-valued but underpaid teachers.  When Gillian came home for Thanksgiving she showed me a custom-designed card from her Director.  On the cover were quotes in block letters and colors jumbled together to form a Christmas tree.   The words were carefully lifted from student feedback specifically about Gillian:  “enthusiastic,” “best orientation instructor ever,” “sweet spirit.”  Inside, the Director filled both pages with descriptions of Gillian’s gifts as a teacher, and detailed the ways she made a difference at the school.

One daughter is succeeding under challenging circumstances, yet she’s receiving neither the feedback nor the affirmation needed to balance the human tendency toward self-doubt.  The other is also succeeding, but along with her experience, she is carrying forward into future work experiences a powerful affirmation of who she is and the difference she makes.

Leaders impact lives, not just results

Few leaders fully grasp the power they could access to change lives and enhance performance by affirming the many gifts of the people that work for them.

Worse, too many leaders abuse the power they don’t realize they have, to make others feel less of themselves. I’ll never forget the observation shared by a Sales Manager after being belittled by his CEO.  He noted, “Nobody in this company benefits by my having a low opinion of myself.”

On the one hand, companies know that engaged people are productive ones.  It’s also widely known that one of the biggest factors in employee satisfaction is a great relationship with their manager.  And yet, in my years of working with leaders, the skill I observe used the least, and used least skillfully, is that of providing meaningful affirmation of a person and their effect on others.  It’s a relatively simple act that yields enormous benefits….when done well.

Skillful affirmation requires thought and effort.  It also demands both the giver and receiver accept the risk of dealing with an emotional moment.  In fact, this may be the biggest reason why most of us do it poorly.  We are uncomfortable with the discomfort of giving and receiving the profound gift of acknowledgement.

When a person is affirmed skillfully, they are reminded of who they are, and how their unique presence and contribution makes a difference.  I recently overheard a CFO acknowledge a direct report by saying:  “Julie, you are a master at managing conflict.  In today’s heated discussion, you made sure everyone felt respected, and your questions helped us arrive at a new level of understanding. I’m so glad you’re on this team”.

I watched as the CFO held her gaze on Julie.  Julie squirmed a little, gave a short embarrassed laugh, then said something under her breath like “well, I was just doing my job”.  However, when Julie walked away, she stood taller, displaying with the slightest swagger.  It was clear to me that the affirmation, albeit uncomfortable, landed soundly and would no doubt be the topic of future conversations with trusted peers or family.

Thoughtful, timely, specific affirmation of a person’s value by a respected leader does more for the bottom line than innumerable corrective coaching sessions.  I dare you to go out and catch your people in the act of being their glorious selves, and remind them of the difference they are making with you and others.

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