The last few months we’ve tackled the dysfunction of “negativity.” As we conclude this series and start a new dysfunction (and year for that matter), I can’t think of a more appropriate time for the prescription. There is perhaps no better antidote to negativity than healthy and regular doses of “thankfulness.” Seems too simple, huh? Let me explain.
“People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’”
In recent WSJ article on smarter ways to discipline children, a quote from one of the experts jumped out at me. Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center was quoted as saying, “People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’.” His point was simple yet powerful. Research on parenting has consistently shown that parents have a natural tendency to give “negative feedback” – feedback on what their kids are doing poorly or simply not doing. Shockingly, this doesn’t work if the goal is to change a child’s behavior. What has shown to be effective in changing a child’s behavior is to give positive feedback – reaffirming feedback on what was done well – at a ratio of three or four positives to every one negative (3 or 4 to 1). In other words, for every piece of negative feedback you give a child, if you want it to take, you need to be filling the tank three or four times with positive feedback. Of course that’s easier said than done. What does this have to do with overcoming negativity in general? The particularly cool aspect of this research is how shockingly consistent it is with ever other context we find ourselves in throughout life. John Gottman’s research on marriage has shown that in the healthiest marriages, couples give each other feedback in a ratio of five positives to every one negative (5 to 1). In studying effective managers, Barbara Frederickson found that, drum roll, the best and most effective managers give feedback to direct reports at a ratio of five positive to every one negative (5 to 1). The good news for us is that the patterns and the solutions are the same in all aspects of our lives. The challenge is to ignore that darn voice in our head that wants to constantly point out what’s wrong with others… and ourselves for that matter.
Who to thank
Alright. So you are ready to fill others’ tanks with positivity by thanking them for what they have done for you over the last year. But who should you thank? Consider the following list:
- Mentors – mentors are a great place to start. Those individuals that have provided counsel, support and simply an ear when you needed to be heard qualify as mentors. And don’t confine yourself to the mentors that impacted you directly over the last twelve months. Many mentors plant seeds that come to fruition years later. Thank mentors of years-gone-by as well.
- Helpers – I have a long list of the many dysfunctions this global economy has produced over the last four years. Near the top of the list is the near complete absence of “thank you’s” to those individuals that help us get our job done. Examples include direct reports, colleagues or simply the folks at the local copy center that without them, things might have gone terribly wrong. “Helpers” need to be thanked.
- Refers and Recommenders – Odds are, someone (or multiple “someones”) recommended you for something positive this past year. Maybe they recommended you for a job, a promotion or an opportunity. In the craziness of just trying to get it done, we often forget that if it wasn’t for these people, we wouldn’t have had the opportunities that we had. These folks need HUGE “thank-you’s.”
- Family and Friends – Those closest to us that have supported us along the way and offered unconditional love and support are invaluable to us in work and life. They need “thank you’s” just as much as everyone else. We often overlook them because they are “family.” Don’t. Fill their tanks just like you would anyone else.
The right way to say “Thank You”
Now that you’ve got your list, how do you say “thank you” the right way? There are so many ways to thank another person. Let me give you a mini-list based on ease and impact. In other words, I’m going to start with the easiest and naturally the lowest impact and work my way to the hum-dingers of “thank you’s” for that special person who, to quote cousin Eddie from the movie Christmas Vacation, you want to do “somethin’ real nice.”
Thank You E-mail – Thank you e-mails can be great ways to capture your thoughts about how much someone has impacted you and your corresponding level of appreciation for them. The benefit of this approach is that it takes five minutes or less, you can do it anytime and they can read it quickly at a time that is convenient for them. Great for those individuals who may not have made a singularly huge impact on your life and career over the year but did many of the little things along the way.
Ease of effort: Low
Thank You Voicemail – Often overlooked, a wonderful thank you voicemail can go further than a thank you e-mail. Why? For two reasons: First, the other person can hear the sincerity in your voice making the message more personal and impactful. Second, voicemail “thank you’s” are rarely done resulting in a higher probability that it is remembered and kept.
Ease of effort: Low
Thank You Note (Handwritten) – Old school, but still one of the very best ways to thank anyone. It is personal, it shows effort and most of all, hand-written thank you notes are rarely done anymore. Notice offices and desks as you walk by. You’ll see people now keep every single thank you note that they receive and proudly display them. The payoff for sending a handwritten thank you note short-term and long-term is huge. Now, you just have to remember how to use that thing… what’s it called again? Oh yeah: a pen.
Ease of effort: Medium
Thank You Gift – Ranging from a small thoughtful gift to taking someone out to dinner, giving a token of thank you can be particularly appropriate and impactful for those individuals who did something big that resulted in you benefiting significantly over the last year (Ex: a new job, winning a sale, a promotion, saving you from utter catastrophe, etc…). It is powerful and memorable. It can also be dangerous if not done just right. Two warnings on this approach: First, be careful not to get carried away on the value of the gift resulting in the recipient feeling uncomfortable. If the gift seems extravagant, it may feel less like a thank you to the recipient and more like a pay-off (this is particularly dangerous if the recipient is your boss). Second, be careful not to give something that isn’t actually a reward to the recipient but more of a punishment. In other words, don’t require them to do something that takes time and effort to get the gift. Examples to be careful of are: tickets to events (with you of course), dinner, an invitation to your house, etc… For busy people, these can all be punishments. Consider the person’s time and ability to “receive” your gift. With that being said, giving a “gift” can be a particularly powerful way to say “thank you” for those individuals who made your year.
Ease of effort: High
There are few ways better to beat back negativity than by thanking others. Get to it and I promise, not only will you feel better, but you’ll find you’ll be strengthening some of the most important relationships in your personal and professional lives. Oh, and for that voice in your head that says negative stuff about you, “thank him” by sending him on a permanent vacation to some place far, far away. I promise you won’t miss him.