This past week, I joined a Zoom meeting with employees of a private institution where I serve on the Board. We were discussing some financial policy changes. Being on the Board is like walking a tightrope; I must balance support for the institution while providing oversight. As a former manager of an energy trading company, I was involved in the financial details and worked quickly to solve problems. As an institutional Board member, my role is strategic oversight and steering the institution through the senior administrators.
During this short meeting, with the help of a new employee and internal analysis, the administration recommended making changes that I had long championed. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt joy as I broadly smiled. My first thoughts were of how to recognize this moment. I immediately praised the administration and the employees who championed the changes. We agreed to a process to gain approval for the new policy. I told them that I felt like ‘tap dancing in their hallway’ and one of them stated, “This I gotta see!” I had transitioned from a demanding Board member to a person of gratitude.
After the meeting, a thought came into my head. Nobody thanked me for the time I had spent trying to encourage this change. Few (if any) employees thank their bosses. Thinking back over my years as a supervisor and manager, I rarely was thanked. Why is it that we rarely show gratitude to those who have power over us? Being a manager is sometimes like parenting a teenager who gives their parents grief and it doesn’t occur to this growing child to offer a kind word or sincere thanks.
I am told that the loneliest job in the world is the President of the United States. It is a job filled with the world’s toughest problems. People hang onto the President’s every word yet are afraid of his massive power. How often does the President receive thanks? Most likely, after moving out of the White House.
Employees know that their boss can ruin their careers and financial well-being. They are cognizant of the boss’s power. When going out for dinner or drinks together, the power divide is always there which keeps subordinates from relaxing and openly sharing. The boss might be a great person, but truthfully, the team would rather he or she be elsewhere so they can relax with their peers.
How do people in power deal with this hierarchical imbalance? First, know it exists and treat all with respect and love, even when it is not returned. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:9 NRSV) I did not mention at the meeting that I had long pushed for this change nor that it had been blocked in the past. Instead, I sent emails to several employees personally thanking them.
Second, do not expect thanks. A lack of expressed gratitude goes with positions of power. When I handed out pay raises and bonuses, I never expected thanks and rarely received any. I always thanked my supervisor even when it did not meet my expectations. One time, I received an unexpected promotion and told my supervisor that he had made my day as I broadly beamed. He smiled back.
Third, take your burdens to a peer or friend. Confidential information is not to be shared with those you supervise. You are hired to solve problems, not complain to your reports about the burdens you carry. Employees come to you for solutions and direction, not to be your counselor. Instead, seek out a mentor or coach for help.
And last, don’t take employees distancing from you personally. You may never hear how grateful they feel towards you. It wasn’t until I retired that my team personally expressed their gratitude to me. After I departed, some of my former employees became friends and we have developed close peer relationships. We laughed about the highs and lows of our former employment together. I was able to become close to their families which was an added benefit.
Just as death does not have the final word in the life of a Christian, managerial hierarchy does not last forever. Remember to show respect, love, and gratitude to your boss when it is deserved. And when gratitude is not deserved, remember that God made your boss in His image, just like you.