The career-changing power of sharing appreciation

A few weekends ago, I was at my business partner’s birthday gathering, lightly facilitating some sharing of his impact—what we appreciated in Edmond, what we saw in him that he might not see in himself. A friend of his commented that most people don’t get this level of appreciation and celebration reflected back to them until they are dead. At funerals, people give themselves permission to bring their emotions, to reminisce about favorite memories, to share the life-changing impacts that person has had on them. It feels cathartic and connecting—but the person who has passed isn’t hearing a word of it.

Why we should skip ahead to the good stuff

Too often, we wait until there is an ending or closing to say kind words, or we don’t give appreciative feedback at all. The ending doesn’t have to be death—it might be when a beloved employee announces she’s leaving a job. Heartwarming emails pour in in response to the farewell email, or some words are said at the company all-hands, or people write emotional notes of appreciation.

When I left a recent job, I received brief but beautiful emails from people I had interacted with only once or twice, sharing that even in their different function, they were inspired by seeing me show up as a senior woman at the company. I hadn’t known that. One of my direct reports showed up a few minutes late to our last one-on-one because she was writing a letter—a handwritten letter! I was also presented with a foam board with more notes from the engineering team and other coworkers.

Take the first step in creating a culture in which sharing appreciation and gratitude in the moment is as natural as showing up for daily stand-ups or checking email.

I treasure those words. They reflect to me what I already know, which is that in an imperfect system, I have lived and acted true to my values and what long-term success means to me. At the same time, I wonder what might have been different for me if I had deeply known the appreciation throughout my time there.

The impact of appreciative feedback

A few months ago, Edmond and I conducted a few dozen interviews to find the patterns in frustrations, pains, hopes, and dreams of engineers, tech leads, engineering managers, CTOs, and VPs of engineering. What struck us is that so many people cared deeply about doing well and were trying to do their best, but we heard this over and over again:

“I don’t even know if I’m doing a good job.”

When I reflect on moments in my own career that I’ve received meaningful appreciative feedback, a few come to mind. In written feedback at Google, at a time when I struggled with a feeling of having “snuck” in through their internship program (rather than the normal full slate of rigorous interviews), my manager told me the work I was doing was on par with what was expected of more-senior engineers. That gave me a concrete calibration of how I was doing, so I was able to leave behind a lot of those feelings of uncertainty. A year or so after I left Google, I had lunch with a senior engineer who had been my mentor there. He mentioned in conversation that he felt like my career was a rocket ship and soon he would see me as a CTO of a large tech company. He showed me a glimpse of how he saw me as a leader before I saw myself that way.

There was also the time after I returned from my second maternity leave. I felt like I was doing all right, and as I transitioned from four days a week back to five, my manager told me, “It feels like after your maternity leave, you leveled up a huge step. I bet a lot of people didn’t even know you were working only four days a week.” The impact was that I had a better sense of the perception people had of me and my work—and that rather than just doing all right, I was kicking ass.

In each of these instances, something that was clear as day to the other person was obscured for me, and by sharing what they had seen or noticed in me, it shifted how I viewed myself.

Kicking off the gratitude loop

Companies are starting to catch on to the importance of expressing gratitude. Anil Dash, the CEO of software company Glitch, wrote on Medium about how Glitch fosters a culture of gratitude, and Camille Fournier shared how they did this at Rent The Runway. And Jen Dennard of Range Labs, a company that facilitates better communication and strengthens relationships among teams, wrote about building a culture of gratitude through high frequency and gratitude catered to each individual. Edmond and I try to express gratitude when we feel it and also reflect in our monthly debriefs with a prompt around what we’re grateful for.

When I started training to become a coach a year ago, the coaching skill of “acknowledgment”—noticing something positive about the other person and saying it to them out loud—was the most difficult for me. It felt awkward, inauthentic, contrived. Positive feedback in the form of “good job” felt like a pat on the head—condescending, almost. I imagine it feels that way for many people—and so we shy away from it, hoping that people already know what we appreciate about them.

I’ve found that more-specific prompts guide me and make it feel more structured and less awkward to share appreciation and gratitude.

  • What quality do you see in this person that they might not see in themselves?
  • What is the most noticeable change you’ve seen since you started working with this person?
  • What qualities do you most appreciate about this person? What do you see as possible for them if they lean into these qualities more fully?
  • What is your favorite memory of this person?

If you want this type of feedback, ask for it. Before your next one-one-one, take a moment to consider these prompts and share a piece of appreciative feedback. And then, in whatever way feels comfortable for you—perhaps in the same meeting, or in a Slack thread or email request—tell people that you’re looking to better understand your strengths and the impact you have on the those around you, and would love if they could answer one of these prompts. Take the first step in creating a culture in which sharing appreciation and gratitude in the moment is as natural as showing up for daily stand-ups or checking email.

Jean Hsu is a cofounder of Co Leadership and a member at Berkeley’s WeWork 2120 University Ave.

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