Why nobody thinks to thank their boss
A new manager once approached me, a few months into her job. She was finding it hard. Hardest of all was the lack of gratitude. She had sorted out several problems for her team, but no one had said “thank you”. All they did was complain about something else.
You have teenagers, I said. How often did they thank her? She smiled. Hardly ever. How much did they complain? All the time. Well, being a manager was like parenting teenagers, I told her. As with teenagers, it doesn’t occur to your team that you have your own needs or might benefit from a kind word.
Many management commentators have written about the loneliness that comes with promotion to a senior job: the sudden wariness of those who used to be your friends, and their (often well-founded) suspicion that you now have to take the organisation’s side rather than theirs.
As a manager, you have new responsibilities and insomnia-inducing worries. Those you lead now form a separate group, from which you are often excluded. You may do your best to be kind and to ensure your team’s happiness and welfare. But you also have the power to decide how they do their jobs, or even whether they continue to have jobs. If you don’t set their salaries and bonuses, you almost certainly have some input into them.
As Manfred Kets de Vries, an Insead professor and psychoanalyst, has written: “Hierarchy creates a power distance.” Even if managers try to minimise that divide, “their subordinates will always be cognisant of their boss’s ability to make decisions that can radically affect their careers.”
You may still chat and joke with your team, but they need time away from you so that they can talk about things they no longer want you to hear, possibly about you. They are an in-group, and you are no longer a member.
Once, when I led a Financial Times department, I noticed that some of the team were working late. Not wanting to abandon them, I decided to stay in the office too. It took me a while to realise that they were waiting for me to go home — so that they could go to the pub together.
It is not that your subordinates have forgotten that you are human. If you return to work after being ill, they may ask how you are. Otherwise, they assume you can manage. You are, after all, a manager. You have greater power, and a higher salary. You have also agreed to take on more responsibility. The analogy with parenting applies here too. Your team, like your children, think your job is to solve their problems. They are not there to solve yours. You are the grown-up, even if you don’t always feel like one.
What can you do about this hierarchical distance and your team’s assumption that you do not need their help, much less their thanks?
First, accept that the power imbalance exists. If you ever have to fire people, never say how upsetting it is for you. You are keeping your job; they are losing theirs. The same goes for less dramatic decisions. You can tell people what to do. They can’t tell you. They may try, but their ability to enforce their desire is limited.
Second, find people who can share your burden. There are issues of confidentiality, details about your team that you cannot share with outsiders. One of the most startling features of becoming a manager for the first time is how much of people’s personal information you are suddenly privy to. They may not think you need support, but they often need yours — because they have been diagnosed with a serious illness, or their children are in trouble, or their parents need moving to a home that can look after them.
But even within the constraints of maintaining confidence, there are others you can turn to. If you are not at the top of the organisation, you will probably have peers at the same level of seniority as you. They will be having similar difficulties. If they are more experienced, they may have advice about how to cope.
A mentor or coach can also help. A sturdy deputy is invaluable. They can be a bridge between you and your team, transmitting messages in both directions, picking up grumbles and dissatisfaction — or unexpressed gratitude — where you may not.
Above all, don’t take the distance personally. It comes with the job. You may be more appreciated than you realise. When you leave, you may well receive thanks, in farewell cards or in personal messages. The ones who thank you, for a personal kindness or for supporting them in their career, may not be the ones you expected. Sometimes the grumpiest turn out to be the most grateful.
And while you are in the job, remember to dispense gratitude, even if you don’t receive it. Nothing encourages better performance or greater loyalty than a “thank you” from the boss.
The writer is an FT contributing editor.