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The amazing impact of practicing sincere gratitude

(EDITORIAL) Whether they’re a family member, a boss who gave our first big break, or a trusted colleague and mentor, we’ve all lost people important to us professionally or personally who are either no longer with us or with whom we’ve lost touch over the years. Don’t miss out on the chance to express your gratitude.

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Let’s start with a true story

His routine seldom varied. Up punctually each morning at 5:30, showered, shaved, and dressed by 6:00, and out the door for a morning cup of coffee at a local café by 6:15. Even on the weekends, the only change was that he’d make the coffee at home. So when he got up that Sunday morning, nothing seemed different. Different day, but same routine.

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Before your eyes

Looking at his wedding ring, he noticed that the skin of his hand looked different in the light that filtered through the kitchen window. Stepping into the breaking daylight on the back porch to confirm his initial suspicions, he noticed that what he thought he had seen was worse than initially thought. His skin had turned a jaundiced dull yellow, and it was everywhere he looked.

On the drive into the local hospital with his wife of nearly three decades, his mind began to scan for signs of what might be wrong. Sure he’d been a little more tired lately, but that was due to the hours he was working in establishing a new sales territory, right?

Everything was the same, except it wasn’t.

Once at the hospital, hope turned to horror as the doctors worked. “Your blood’s poisoned; had you come in here a day later, you’d have been gone for sure.” Test after test quickly followed, all pointing to the same result.

“You need to know that you’re going to die,” the surgeon told him. “At best, you’ve got a year with treatment, but it might be as quick as six months.” At that benediction, the cold chill that had been creeping over him gave way to a flash of anger and determination to fight and prove the surgeon wrong.

And wrong he was. Instead of six months, the rare cancer did its job in just under three, leaving me to bury my father before my 20th birthday.

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The important ones

Growing up in my career as a professional, I often wished for his advice and counsel, and found myself wanting to tell him just how much the formative lessons that he had taught me still stick with me today. As a child, you’re typically not inured to the thought that your parents might become ill or die one day, and that you’ll be unable to adequately show your appreciation for their advice and counsel over the years.

We’ve all had similar experiences. Whether they’re a family member, a boss who gave our first big break, or a trusted colleague and mentor, we’ve all lost people important to us professionally or personally who are either no longer with us or with whom we’ve lost touch over the years.

It’s important to take stock of our lives and the people in them before we let the time slip away.Click To Tweet

We’ve all got perfectly acceptable reasons for not letting those conversations of gratitude happen, on the surface at least. However, with a little probing into them, they crumble readily, proving to be more excuse than reason.

The power of gratitude

In the day-to-day routine of our lives, we’re often not told “thank you” for more than cursory exchanges. Holding the door open for someone might earn you a quick “thank you”, but a heartfelt expression of gratitude from a colleague or supervisor is rare in the workplace. This is despite research that solidifies the value of both receiving the thanks, as well as giving it.

In Janice Kaplan’s book The Gratitude Diaries, she identified that 70 percent of individuals in a research study responded that they would feel better about themselves and their efforts at work if their supervisor thanked them more regularly. We clearly want to be noticed and acknowledged for the things that we do; even if not in a public, self-serving way, a quiet expression of gratitude for what we’ve done for others is meaningful.

The interesting part is that despite an overwhelming majority of us enjoying that validation, we’re remarkably loathe to provide it; Kaplan notes that in the same study, only 10 percent of those surveyed said that they regularly showed gratitude to their co-workers or supervisors.

A boost of happiness

This is despite evidence that doing so, and doing so in writing pays amazing dividends to our own well-being. As noted in a Harvard University Medical School mental health bulletin, research by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, identified that the action of writing and delivering a letter of gratitude personally to someone who the writer felt had never been adequately thanked for their kindness, delivered impactful increases in happiness scores, more than any other activity tried in the research.

Not only did writing to someone to properly express gratitude provide a meaningful boost in happiness, but it also did so for an extended time, with benefits reported as long as a month after doing so.

Praise you like I should

For some of us, doing something so raw as writing a letter of heartfelt gratitude feels like a tad too much vulnerability. “Most people believe vulnerability is weakness, “said Dr. Brene Brown in her TED talk on the power of vulnerability.

“But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?”

It takes courage for us to open ourselves to write about what the contributions of someone else has meant to us—especially if there’s a chance that that person might be unaware of what a small act of kindness on their part actually meant to you.

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A gift twice given

However, it’s the opportunity to step outside of those insecurities that gives us the power to not only reap the benefits of being grateful, but also provides the recipient with the incredible gift to know that they were impactful in some way, especially if the event had happened in the past at some point.

A personal example of this happened over the holidays; out shopping with family, I was stopped by a person who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite recognize. She went on to effusively thank me for helping her when she came to my office, telling me that it meant so much to her and she was so grateful to me for assisting her. I thanked her for telling me this, and assured her that it had been my pleasure.

As we walked away, my wife asked me what it was that I had done for her; I had to truthfully say that I didn’t really remember, but whatever it was didn’t stand out in my mind as being extraordinary in nature.

And there it was: a gift twice given.

I had, apparently, in the past given her assistance when she felt she needed it the most and was now able to tell me what that had meant to her. She had given me the gift of knowing that my work had, at least for her, meaning and value.

Making gratitude a part of your life

So how do we incorporate these types of events into our daily lives more often? Professionally, I did them by design. Once a year or so, my staff and I took the voluntary opportunity to anonymously let others know of the way that we appreciated one another. I took our staff roster and distributed it to everyone, with the instructions that it was totally voluntary, and that they could write as much or as little as they wanted. The goal was to identify the people on staff that they were grateful for, and, in a few lines, express exactly what they were thankful for about them.

The response was staggering every time, with close to 100% participation. Every single person on staff had at least one expression of gratitude given to them by a colleague, and many had several, often multiple sentences long. These were typed for anonymity and given to the staff in sealed envelopes so that they could read and experience them however they chose. Over time, it led to staff members being more willing to share their expressions of gratitude with their colleagues face-to-face and with increasing frequency.

So, when you sit down to write such a letter, what do you write and to whom do you send it?

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Opening up

Be comfortable with your level of vulnerability in thanking the person for something that meant much to you, and consider sharing with the person the reasons that it did. While not recommending that you overshare—sometimes the toothpaste can’t be shoved back into the tube, and some things might be a bit too personal — I would encourage you to be as honest as you can be as to why their action was meaningful. That allows the recipient to have context for why their actions or words were so meaningful to you.

And as far as the audience?

You can feel free to express your appreciation to anyone, for acts large or small.

The only caution I might suggest is that you make certain that you’re heartfelt in your desire to thank them, and that the acts were truly meaningful. Even if you’re sincere in your appreciation, a hastily worded letter that seems trite or overly saccharine about a commonplace nicety can come across as being insincere, causing more harm than the good that you intended.

Reflect, write, read, and send.

What happens next?

Gods do not answer letters

Or so John Updike wrote about famed Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams, who famously hit a home run in his last at-bat and did not return from the dugout once he’d rounded the bases, never acknowledging the adoring crowd chanting his name. You may never receive an acknowledgement from your reader once you’ve sent it.

That may sting. After all, you took the time to tell this person how much they mean(t) to you and how grateful you are for what they’ve done, and nothing?

And you’ve got to be okay with that. The purpose of this specific exercise wasn’t to establish a dialogue, but rather to tell someone that you appreciated them and their actions towards you. You’ve now done that, and you’ve got to provide room for your audience to experience their letter in their own way and own expression of it. The important thing is that you’ve done it.

So, this week, in a quiet moment, I’d challenge you to take a moment to reflect on the individuals in your life who’ve meant the world to you, or whom you appreciate, but they perhaps just don’t know it. Follow that reflection with action; after all, there’s no time like the present to erase that lack of knowing how special they truly are.

#PracticeGratitude

Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms. 
 
Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.
 
The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.
 
And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.
 
We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.
 
That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

I just got furloughed. Now what?

(EDITORIAL) Some companies are furloughing employees, betting on their company’s long-term recovery. Here’s what you can expect and should plan for in your furlough.

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Are you furloughed? You are not alone! What now? What does “furlough” even mean? How will I get money? Will I still keep my insurance?

A furlough differs from a layoff in a few ways. Whereas a layoff means you are definitely unemployed, a furlough is at its core unpaid time off. Not all furloughs are created equal, though the basic concept is the same: to keep valued employees on ice without being on the hook for their pay until a financial turnaround occurs.

The good-ish news is that a furlough means the company wants to keep you available. When a company is unable to pay their employees for an extended (often indefinite, as is the case with COVID-19 closures) period, they may opt to furlough them instead of laying them off. This virus has decimated whole industries, at least temporarily.

Furloughed employees are forbidden by law to do so much as answer a work email or text while furloughed–or else the company must pay them. The first large waves of COVID-19 furloughs are in obvious sectors such as hospitality (Marriott International), airlines industries (Virgin Atlantic), though other industries are following suit with furloughs or layoffs.

Some furloughs may mean cutting employees’ hours/days to a minimum. Maybe you’re being asked to take off a couple days/week unpaid if you’re hourly, or one week/month off if you’re on salary. With the COVID-19 situation, though, many companies are furloughing bunches of employees by asking them not to work at all. This particular furlough will last ostensibly for a few months, or until business begins to bounce back, along with normal life.

So, what are your rights? Why would you wait for the company? Can you claim unemployment benefits? What about your other work benefits? I’d be lying if I said I knew all the answers, as the furlough packages differ from company to company, and the laws differ from state to state.

However, here are some broad truths about furloughs that should apply. I hope this information helps you sort through your options. I feel your pain, truly. It’s a tough time all around. I’m on your side.

The first answer people want to know is yes, if you’re furloughed and have lost all or most of your income, you may apply for unemployment benefits. You can’t be expected to live off of thin air. Apply IMMEDIATELY, as there is normally a one or two week wait period until the first check comes in. Don’t delay. Some states provide more livable unemployment benefits (I’m looking at you, Massachusetts) than others, but some income is better than none.

Also, most furloughed employees will likely continue to receive benefits. Typically, life and health insurance remain intact throughout the length of the furlough. This is one of the ways companies let their employees know they are serious about wanting them back as soon as it’s financially realistic. Yet some other benefits, like a matching 401k contribution, will go away, as without a paycheck, there are no contributions to match.

Should you look for a job in the interim? Can you really afford not to? What if the company goes belly up while you’re waiting? Nobody wants that to happen, but the reality is that it might.

If you absolutely love your job and the company you work for and feel fairly confident the furlough is truly short-lived, then look for a short-term job. Thousands upon thousands of positions have opened up to meet the needs of the COVID-19 economy, at grocery stores or Amazon, for example. You could also look for contract work. That way, when your company reopens the doors, you can return to your position while finishing off the contract work on the side.

If the company was on shaky ground to begin with, keep that in mind when applying to new jobs. A full-time, long-term position may serve you better. At the end of this global health and economic crisis, some industries will be slower to return to their former glory–if they ever do. If you’re furloughed from such an industry, you may want to shift to something else completely. Pivot, as they say. Now would be a good time.

The only exceptions are “Excepted” government workers in essential positions, including public health and safety. They would have to work while furloughed in case of a government shutdown (and did previously).

Furloughs are scary, but they offer a greater measure of security than a layoff. They mean the company plans on returning to a good financial situation, which is encouraging. Furloughs also generally offer the comfort–and necessity–of insurance, which means you can breathe a bit easier while deciding your next move.

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Opinion Editorials

The cringe inducing and lesson learning tale of Poor Jennifer

(EDITORIAL) Video conferencing is becoming the norm, so make sure you don’t end up like poor Jennifer. Take some extra time and precautions against exposure.

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Ever had that bad dream where you were giving a speech, but realized you were totally naked? If so, you’ll join us in cringing at the true life tale of “Poor Jennifer.”

We are all Poor Jennifer. We love Poor Jennifer. We stand with Poor Jennifer. Take a deep breath and prepare to relate far too well to a story this mortifying. You’ll want to tell her you feel for her and perhaps even offer up your own embarrassing anecdotes to let her know she’s not alone. Jennifer’s story serves as the ultimate cautionary tale for Zoom calls.

Working from home is a luxury/burden that was still surprisingly rare until the COVID-19 crisis sent office workers home in droves. IT departments across the country–and across the world–scrambled to ensure they had solid firewalls and valid VPNs locked and loaded on everyone’s computer. Everyone signed up for video conferencing tools. Zoom became a household name overnight, though other options are available, too.

Nearly everyone’s reality has drastically changed over the past several weeks due to the novel coronavirus–and in some cases overnight. With this global pandemic comes uncertainty, anxiety, and dread, meaning few of us are working at our own full mental capacity. Many professionals find themselves working at home, using new tools, and with new, often rambunctious, noisy, or needy coworkers, AKA children, pets, or life partners. It can be jarring, disconcerting.

If you’re used to participating in conference calls in an office environment, whether video or audio, you take them at your desk. Working from home can tempt one to mute the audio call and do some multi-tasking. Nobody can see you or hear you once you mute the phone, after all, and not every part of every call is important for your particular piece of the puzzle.

I’m not proud of it, but I’ve walked the dog or loaded the dishwasher while I muted a conference call during another department’s report. It’s not ideal, but I have to tell you…it happens. I am thanking my lucky stars today that we kept video conferences to a bare minimum at work.

What does this have to do with Poor Jennifer? Well, Poor Jennifer was on a team video conference call when she answered another call: nature’s. Yikes. Zoom caught it all, and her colleagues’ faces told the story. We see confusion, discomfort, then disbelief. By the time one of her colleagues tries to tell her, she obviously already caught a glimpse of herself on the porcelain throne and took care of the problem.

The whole scenario was over practically before it began, yet it’s a moment that will live on forever, because one of Poor Jennifer’s inconsiderate coworkers went ahead and posted the Zoom feed online. NOT COOL, BRO. As for Poor Jennifer, please know we get it. The world is coming to a standstill, and this weighs heavy on our heads. Your accident serves as a warning to all of us coping with a strange new world. And yes, we laughed a little, awkwardly, because we were taken by surprise and felt uncomfortable for you.

Please know, Poor Jennifer, that it could happen to anyone. Know that we’re on your side. Know that we think your coworker is in the wrong 100% for posting it. Most importantly, know that any minute now, some other unsuspecting soul will unseat you from your internet throne of ignominy. This is the beauty of the internet and our ridiculously short attention spans.

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