On Thanksgiving and every day, here's how to lead with gratitude even in a crisis like COVID

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In the midst of the global financial crisis of 2008, WD-40 Company chief executive officer Garry Ridge made a commitment: He would daily find ways to express gratitude to his employees—and he’d teach his managers to do the same.

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Leaders were guided to pay attention to performance that exceeded expectations and also to look for the most fundamental contributions.

The result: By 2010, the company reported its best financials in its fifty-seven-year history (all of which equates to millions fewer squeaky door hinges and an equal number of happy teenagers sneaking back in after curfew).

CEO Ridge says, “Gratitude creates feelings of belonging. You and I have left an organization, even a relationship because we didn’t feel like we belonged. If our people know we are grateful, we are going to create an organization where they really want to come and give their best.”

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What leaders at this company discovered is expressions of gratitude for employees’ efforts can be a huge motivation and productivity booster during the worst of times.

And yet while practicing gratitude on Thanksgiving and this season might seem easy, it is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied tools of management.

We have devoted decades to coaching executives around the world to be more effective; and helping them learn the skill of leading with gratitude has been central. With research partners, we have also surveyed more than 1 million working adults.

Most bosses we study know that showing gratitude is an essential part of good management. And yet when we talk to their teams, employees say they feel unappreciated or even under assault.

A “lack of recognition for my efforts” is almost always one of the lowest scoring items on employee engagement surveys.

Managers who lack gratitude suffer from a problem of cognition—a failure to perceive how hard their people are trying to do good work—and, if they’re encountering problems, what they are.

What’s the deal?

This is the gratitude gap, and we have delved into what’s behind it. We identified a series of widespread and pernicious myths about managing others that cause leaders to withhold their gratitude, including:

-Fear Gets More Out of People

-People Want Way Too Much Praise These Days

-There’s Just No Time

-I’m Not Wired to Feel It

-They’ll Think I’m Bogus

Developing genuine gratitude as a leader involves more than just saying “thanks,” it’s about carefully observing what employees are doing, walking in their shoes to develop greater empathy, and sincerely trying to understand the challenges they face.

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It is about first seeing good things happening and then second expressing heartfelt appreciation for the right behaviors.

Managers who lack gratitude suffer from a problem of cognition—a failure to perceive how hard their people are trying to do good work—and, if they’re encountering problems, what they are.

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Leaders who free themselves from their ingratitude habits during this crisis can build more positive and productive team cultures. They can identify obstacles that thwart performance and reinforce the right behaviors and fine-tune through positive direction.

Adds gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, “Gratitude can help us cope with hard times. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”

As we found in our research, gratitude isn’t just about being nice, it’s about being smart, and is a skill that any leader can learn.

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are the New York Times bestselling authors of "Leading with Gratitude," "The Carrot Principle" and "All In." They are the founders of The Culture Works and work with organizations around the world to address employee engagement issues. Learn more at adriangostick.com and chesterelton.com.

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