Thanksgiving is part of the fabric of American culture that celebrates how men and women survived the difficulty of change and new experiences, faced the limitations in their environment and created opportunities and relationships to survive and succeed.
It is a tale of gratitude.
Facing limitations and creating opportunities and relationships to survive and succeed is also what business leaders and their teams do on a daily basis.
As a New Englander, I grew up with the story of Thanksgiving centering on how the 17th century Pilgrims from Europe learned to live with the Native American Indians. The Pilgrims first landed in Corn Hill in Truro, Cape Cod (Massachusetts) and then got back on the Mayflower to sail across Massachusetts Bay settling in Plymouth, MA. Their survival depended on help from Native Americans like Squanto who taught them to plant corn, eat off the land, fish, as well as brokered peace for them with neighboring Indian tribes.
The Pilgrims’ feast of thanksgiving, celebrating the successful harvest, and their invitation to the Native American leaders to join them was my first example of the importance of strategic alliances. Played out in my family and many others, Thanksgiving was also about an intentional experience of hearing adults talk about gratitude, enumerating the things they valued and appreciated.
Aside from the fear each year that I would not be able to finesse avoiding sampling the homemade cranberry sauce, (as one was expected to receive graciously whatever was passed) Thanksgiving represented for me a happy time of appreciation, for delicious cake and pie that seldom otherwise appeared, for stuffing rarely served, for extended family members rarely seen, for a sense of community that tied my family to unknown individuals and families in every state sharing the same country.
Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town evokes for me the same feelings as Thanksgiving.
The story illustrates the importance of noticing what is going on around us. The main character, Emily dies in childbirth and goes back to earth for her 12th birthday as an invisible observer.
After seeing how much she and everyone else missed while living that day, she says in frustration, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize.”
I have worked in many organizations as an employee and consultant, and leaders create a wonderful dynamic when they express gratitude often. First, doing so says to an employee, or team, or division that they are seen, what they do is noticed, and therefore, that they matter. A leader’s observations about what is working well inspires teams to create more of it.
Every day leaders see most clearly what isn’t working — and those areas need to be functionally addressed. Meetings to analyze mistakes and how to avoid them are an essential part of business DNA. In addition, an essential part of an engaged culture DNA is the awareness of and appreciation for what individuals and teams are contributing that help create success.
In other words, creating a culture of gratitude: leaders seeing and then talking about the ways in which the company’s purpose, values, code of conduct, and business principles are given life by how and what employees are doing. This builds trust and reinforces ethical behavior.
A culture that sees and celebrates its employees would also have the ability to see and show appreciation for its customers.
Last summer my daughter and I went to a special after-hours sale The Container Store held for students going to college. Hundreds of parents, college students and incoming freshman lined the sidewalk waiting for the store to reopen. Employees walked down the line with a big map of the U.S. asking students to mark the location of their college.
And when we entered the store, all the employees were lined up clapping as the students walked into the aisles, and many made comments like “congratulations,” “good job.” “have a great year,” “thanks for coming tonight.”
I could tell by the grins, blushes, and happy voices of the students and parents all around me that The Container Store knew well the power of gratitude.
Gael O’Brien, November 25, 2010
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.