Balancing Gratitude in Leadership with Results

In my first Team Leader role over a decade ago, I inherited a team of young men from India who were in the UK on a contract. In our Friday standup at the end of the first week, one of the young men asked me what they should do at the weekend because they were expected to work 7 days a week. At first, I insisted that they should not work until Monday, until one of the team admitted that his boss might give him into trouble if he did not work over the weekend.

That put me in a dilemma; I sensed his anxiety, but I am not keen to encourage team members to work at the weekend. So I sent the four of them on a trip for the weekend. I told them to go to one of the local museums at the University of Cambridge called the Fitzwilliam Museum. I asked them to get me a museum map and take photos of themselves in front of some of the statues to prove that they had been there. Somewhat bewildered, they agreed. Duly, on Monday, they presented me with leaflets and maps from the museums, as well as some photos of them looking slightly confused in front of the artefacts. On Monday, I thanked them for doing what they’d been asked to do because the maps were very important to me, and assured them that they were not in any trouble. If their boss gave them into trouble, he was to call me directly and I would thank him directly for having such a great team. I got no phone call.

On the next Friday, the same thing happened. They insisted they needed to work the weekend, and I requested that they go and visit a different museum. This time, I recommended that they go to the Scott Polar Research Institute museum in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. Again, the request was that they needed to bring back a museum map, and send me photographs of themselves. This time, I noted that their faces were somewhat happier, and this time, I got some grins in the photos. So, I was making progress.

On the third week, the same thing happened, but this time, one of the team said that he would love to go to London. This shy comment was accompanied by shining eyes and a hopeful face. So, this time, I asked them to travel to London and get me a tube map. I asked them to go to Trafalgar Square, visit the National Gallery Museum and get me a map, and take some photos of themselves at Trafalgar Square.  I decided against sending them to the British Museum since the irony is that there are very few British artefacts in there and that didn’t sit well with me. Plus, the National Gallery is in Trafalgar Square. At lunchtime, I took them to the local train station and purchased their tickets, handed them to one of the team for safekeeping and gave them a charged-up Starbucks card for food. I explained that their mission was very important to me and if their boss questioned them, he was to come to me and I would explain that this was a very important mission for the team and I expected it to be carried out.

This time, I got my all-important London tube map along with photos of exhilarated young men triumphantly standing at the fountain in Trafalgar Square. I noted that these photos were on their social media, accompanied by comments from their proud families and friends.

On the fourth week, I waited to see what would happen. The meeting ended and there was no request for work at the weekend. I pulled one of the team aside, and asked what he was thinking. “Miss Jennifer”, he said, “We understand what you are doing and why. We are very very grateful. But, please, no more museums.” At this, we laughed heartily and they never worked a weekend again during the whole time I was there. 

What does loyalty look like?

Over a decade later, they are still in touch with me. They were devastated when I handed back my MVP Award after harassment, and sent messages of loyalty and support. On my birthday, Easter and Christmas, I receive e-cards from them individually. They have all gone on to have successful careers and I have not seen them in over a decade, but they have not forgotten me.

I know it’s a long story, but I wanted to share an example of gratitude in leadership and how you can have the power to do something really powerful for other human beings. All it takes is to try and be a decent human being. I’m listing here a few things that are useful tips in cultivating gratitude as a habit and bringing out the excellence in other people.

Recognize results.

Practicising daily gratitude allowed me to thank the team individually for their efforts. It’s hard to get the balance between effort and results, but the results will come if people are supported enough. Simple recognition can help, and the daily stand-up is a great way to thank people. If you are doing agile ‘show and tell’ meetings, recognition is a crucial part of the process. In this example, I was grateful for their hard work and efforts in pulling together a tough project with intricate and complex requirements. I do not believe in the quantity of working hours, but the quality of work.

Gratitude inspires teamwork.

Leading by example meant that it encouraged the same behaviour within the team. They started to acknowledge each other’s efforts, and this helped to build collaboration.

A humble leader is a better leader.

Humility means recognizing that other people helped to build your success. It’s important to recognize that, and practising gratitude means that you need to think about the team effort and not just what you can take from people.

Gratitude encourages other people to have a say.

This means that you capture issues before they go ‘up and out’ to become huge issues.

As for the team, I’m sure that they taught me more than I taught them. I learned a lot from them, and I am grateful for the experience of having worked with them. They helped me to learn to lead with gratitude and it’s a lesson I will not forget. 

And, in case you are wondering… during their time in the UK…. the team never visited in more museums but enjoyed their time here. Memories made!