How to Be a Better Manager in Just Two Words

Illustration: Virginia Gabrielli

Three years ago, on the eve of International Women’s Day, I sat at a long table in a flower shop that had shuttered for the evening and wrote thank-you notes to several of my former bosses.

I was there for a friend’s fundraiser. She had invited women and allies—“’Twas the night before Women’s Day and all through the house…” was the opening line of her invite—to come together to support and celebrate women. She asked us to bring donations for Women In Need, a nonprofit that provides shelter and resources to homeless families in New York City. She provided us with notecards and work stations to write notes to the inspiring women in our lives (along with snacks and drinks to get the gratitude flowing).

As the room filled and a pile of diapers and interview-appropriate clothing formed along one wall, I picked up a pen and started writing.

I wrote to each of my former bosses.

I wrote to the physical therapist and private practice owner I used to do medical transcription for, thanking her for giving me my first-ever job and teaching me what it looked like to run a business.

I wrote to the editor at the paper I used to write human interest stories for, thanking her for teaching me to write a good lede and to craft a compelling narrative.

And I wrote to other people—advisors, mentors, coworkers, teachers—who had extended a hand and helped me, pushed me and supported me far beyond what was required from their post.

I sat there writing for over an hour, using way more than my fair share of notecards. The next day, I dropped them off to be mailed and thought about what I’d learned during the process and why practicing gratitude made me feel so good.

What does all this have to do with how to be a better manager? I realized that I was driven to write those notes to my bosses because they had been leaders who supported not just my work, but also my life. They cared enough to understand my ambitions and my struggles, and they were grateful for what I brought to the team and told me often. They were people I was still thinking about, years after having left their organization and team. I wanted to be that kind of a leader. And a few weeks later, when I was promoted to team manager, I channeled their example. I set out to be a leader who was grateful and who inspired gratitude.

What is gratitude?

Sometimes understood to be a trait (your overall tendency to be grateful) and sometimes understood to be an emotion (a temporary feeling caused by an event), gratitude is generally defined as the recognition of positive outcomes that derive from external sources. You get a job offer and are grateful to the company for giving you a chance. Or it’s a beautiful day outside and you’re grateful to a higher power—be it God or nature or the Universe—for the opportunity to enjoy it.

Gratitude isn’t something made up, according to a white paper from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. In fact, “it has deep roots that are embedded in our evolutionary history, our brains and DNA, and in child development.” Reciprocal altruism—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours (literally, in the case of some of the research on primates’ grooming habits)—evolved into our modern-day practice of gratitude, according to the white paper.

Today gratitude is understood as a “social glue” that inspires generosity, kindness and helpfulness, including at work.

Why being grateful matters

So you want to know how to be a better manager. It feels obvious, doesn’t it, that it’s more enjoyable to work for a manager that appreciates you versus one that doesn’t? Actively being grateful at work is one of the most effective ways to create and sustain a positive, productive work culture.

I’ll talk first about the individual impact of practicing gratitude, and then talk about the benefits of a leader practicing gratitude with their team.

On a personal basis, gratitude has the following positive effects:

Increases wellbeing and positivity

People who kept a list of things they were grateful for were found to be, on average, happier than those who did not, according to this study.

Boosts self-esteem and generosity

Since gratitude is, by nature, an emotion focused on others, practicing it increases overall positivity towards others, which then helps you think more positively about yourself. It’s a nice little cycle of pay-it-forward altruism.

Improves overall health

Being grateful—usually measured in studies by spending five minutes a day writing a gratitude journal—can lead an individual to exercise more, experience less pain, sleep more and sleep better. Some studies find that being grateful can even result in a longer life expectancy.

A grateful person is one that’s better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of life, to treat other people better and to feel better physically and mentally. That would make it worth it just to do for yourself, even if it didn’t make you a better manager.

But it does.

Why being a grateful manager matters

Practicing gratitude isn’t just good for individuals. It’s also beneficial if you want to know how to be a better manager. These are some of the ways:

Improves the satisfaction and happiness of your employees

A study asked 100 participants to write notes of gratitude and anticipate how the notes’ recipients would feel about them. Participants overestimated how awkward recipients would feel and greatly underestimated the notes’ positive effects. Many recipients said they were “ecstatic” to receive the note. The lesson? A little bit of gratitude (the notes took less than 5 minutes to write!) goes a long way.

Increases your social capital at the office

Studies show that gratitude leads to higher levels of social support and trust. If you want your team to believe in you and follow your lead, you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding if you showcase gratitude on a regular basis.

Promotes productivity

Neuroscientists have explained that managers who focus on problems and subconscious threats actually perform worse than managers who instead focus on what is going well (and are grateful for it) and approach problem areas with a more even mindset. The latter type of leaders see their teams flourish under a more balanced environment.

Keeps your employees around for longer

Research finds that employees whose workplaces center around a culture of gratitude have greater job satisfaction and are less motivated to look for other opportunities. Making a team feel valued is one of the simplest and most effective ways to be a good leader.

How to be a better manager: Ways to be grateful at work

Feel free to steal my friend’s plan from her fundraiser and regularly send out handwritten notes of thanks to your team when they go above and beyond. But if that’s not quite your style, try one of these ways for managers to practice gratitude:

1. Reflect with gratitude every day.

You can do this with a gratitude journal, where you write a list of things you’re thankful for, or with a gratitude-focused guided or silent meditation. It can be something you share with your team, or something you do on your own.

2. Give specific compliments

Did your direct report do a good job on their latest presentation? Tell them! But go beyond a dry congratulations and call out what specifically impressed you. Was it their poise under pressure? Their engaging and informative presentation? The way they enunciated and projected their voice in a room full of people so everyone could follow along? Compliment them even when they’ve just done what their job requires—daily gratitude is shown to improve motivation and output.

3. Create a public gratitude wall / Slack channel

Being thankful in public shows your team that you believe in a culture of gratitude and recognition. Encourage all team members to call out team members who have stepped up and helped out, in ways big (covering a sick team member in an important meeting) and small (remembering someone’s allergy for the lunch order and making them feel included).

4. Start team meetings with gratitude

Team meetings are perfect to build team rapport. Make the first thing on your agenda a moment for everyone to share something they’re grateful for. You can do this ahead of time, in a pre-meeting poll that everyone reviews together, or as a break-the-ice activity before jumping into the rest of your agenda. Some questions to use: What inspired you today? What made you smile today? What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

5. Give gifts

You don’t need to splash out for team Rolexes or fancy swag. Small, simple shows of appreciation—a gift certificate on someone’s birthday, a free team lunch on a random Wednesday, bringing in a massage therapist during the stressful busy season—can go a long way. Consider making gift-giving a team activity, too. Try a charity swap, where once a quarter, everyone pulls a name from a hat and gives a nominal amount ($10 or $20 works!) to a charity inspired by the name they chose.

6. Celebrate individuals

On work anniversaries or other special occasions, consider bringing your team together to honor one individual at time. You can have everyone send in a story about how that person helped them or made their day better, create a gratitude “hot seat” in the meeting where everyone goes around and gives a compliment to the person sitting at the head of the table, or share everyone’s favorite memories with that person through a photobook.

Go forth and be grateful. And thank you for reading! (See what I did there?)

June 29, 2020