Elijah Verdoorn

Programmer, Designer, Musician

Use Your Manners

We all heard the same line at some point through our childhoods: “say Thank You”. Over time we were taught by parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults that the practice of expressing gratitude with these words was important to being a polite member of society. As adults for most of us on most days it has become an automatic reaction when we receive something from others. The fact that we react with gratitude automatically is good, but I think that there is room for improvement: we can turn something automatic into something international and more meaningful; I’ve found this to be especially true as I’ve worked recently to become more openly grateful at work.

I’m more motivated as a team member when leaders of that team recognize my contributions to the work. Now that I’m leading more projects I’m striving to explicitly recognize the work that I see others doing that is making my projects a success. I’ve kept a running notes document and jotted down times that I’ve seen my team take on work or go above-and-beyond the call of duty. At no specific interval (when the document got sufficiently long) I’d take a few minutes to format it to be readable, identifying the team member and the specific action that I was thankful for, then post it to a public channel for all to see. That public acknowledgement of their efforts has been well received, and I’ve seen my teammates continue to rise to meet new challenges as we moved along our project’s building phase.

Logistically this practice has worked for me for a few reasons: I don’t want these gratitude posts to become spam, so saving them up to post in batches makes sense. Not waiting until the end of the project to give this kind of positive feedback means that I’m more likely to remember specifics and can reinforce the helpful behavior more immediately, which has been shown to be psychologically more impactful (see classical research on operant conditioning). At the conclusion of the project I have the opportunity to go back and read the messages that I’ve posted as inspiration for more formal reviews and feedback that I’ll provide in longer-lasting systems.

One lesson that I’ve learned from this practice of expressing gratitude in this manner is that if I want to be able to keep giving thanks, I need to let others step up and own different pieces of the work that we’re all trying to accomplish as a group. After all, I can’t thank myself over and over again, that’d be weird! I have a tendency and habit of trying to be directly involved in every little part of the ongoing work but that means that I’m not letting others challenge themselves, grow and develop their careers, and I am holding them back from learning. In order to be the thankful leader that I want to be I need to use the other half of the manners that we were taught as kids: I need to be willing to say “please”.

While I’ve been looking for more opportunities to practice saying “please” in my current work, my team has made it hard for me to find them: not because they’re unwilling to do work, rather the opposite; the individual engineers in my group have naturally picked up tasks and gone largely above and beyond to make the work successful. I think that’s a result of the culture of ownership that we’ve cultivated over years of working together, reinforced by the recognition that publicly saying “thank you” provides.

As I lead more I’m going to keep loose track of how often I’m expressing my gratitude, especially publicly, both as a way to ensure that I’m encouraging others and recognizing their hard work but also as a way to hold myself accountable for giving others ownership and opportunities to grow and develop their careers through our shared work.