Give Thanks -- To Your Employees

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

When Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday in 1942 by President Roosevelt and Congress, it solidified a tradition of presidential "declarations of thanksgiving" going back to Washington. While some of these had religious overtones, they were mostly meant as opportunities to reflect on and appreciate national successes or overcoming adversity -- whether it was a victory over the British, the continuation of the Union, or economic prosperity. The idea was that success should not be taken for granted and that it's important to actually set aside time -- an official holiday -- to appreciate all those who contributed to the collective success.

From this perspective, Thanksgiving might be a good time to talk about what's going well in your organization, and to recognize, acknowledge and appreciate all of the contributions that people are making to that success. Particularly when colleagues are expected to work long hours, cross global time zones and move quickly from crisis to crisis -- it's critical to periodically pause and say "thank you." If we want our people to continue working with unbridled energy and commitment, it's vital to remember that money alone is not a sufficient motivator and that appreciation, in fact, goes a long way.

But beyond individual motivation, the notion of "giving thanks" also is critical for driving organizational and individual improvement. Most research into individual development has shown that managers are more likely to change if they are given positive feedback that they can build upon, rather when confronted with a litany of weaknesses and failures. In fact as Kaplan and Kaiser pointed out in an HBR article last year ("Stop Overdoing Your Strengths"), leadership development is more effective if it focuses on calibrating capabilities -- dialing up or down existing skills -- rather than trying to shore up deficits.

On an organizational level too there is a growing realization that change programs are more effective if they build on an organization's strengths. During the days of the GE Work-Out program we used to say that it was important to "use the culture to change the culture." On a more formal basis, my former colleagues at Case Western Reserve, led by David Cooperrider, have done extensive research into the notion of "appreciative inquiry" as a method of organizational change and renewal. And they have demonstrated the power of this idea both in the corporate world and in international development settings.

Our family has a friend who is going to be 105 years old in a few months. Whenever we ask about the secret to longevity, her answer is what she calls "the attitude of gratitude." It's a good lesson to remember for this Thanksgiving season -- and perhaps one that can be applied to our organizations throughout the year.

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates, a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm and the author of the forthcoming book Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done