The Importance of Gratitude and Listening in Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to always show gratitude as a leader? How do listening and leadership go hand-in-hand?

Leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith says that expressing gratitude and listening to others are two essential skills for managers to have. However, many managers tend to hold on to these two bad habits: 1) not saying thank you and 2) neglecting to listen to others.

We’ll discuss both of these principles below.

Bad Habit #1: Not Saying Thank You

One of the simplest tenets of good etiquette is saying thank you when people compliment you or give you a helpful suggestion. Yet when it comes to putting politeness into practice, many leaders fall short. They fall into the bad habit of not expressing gratitude for other people’s help. 

People may refrain from saying thank you for a number of reasons. First, they may do so because they’ve fallen into one of the other bad habits we’ve covered. While these leaders know that saying thank you is important, their compulsion to engage in their bad habit trumps their need to be polite. For instance, imagine you’re someone who feels the need to “add value” to people’s suggestions. If you’ve fallen into this bad practice, you’re automatically going to respond to people’s ideas with a suggestion of improvement, not a simple thank you.

Second, some leaders avoid gratitude because they see it as a form of weakness. When we thank someone, we acknowledge that they’ve helped us in some way. Many leaders would prefer to appear self-sufficient and “good enough” without needing others’ help. They think that cultivating this image will give them an air of superiority and help them to maintain power over their subordinates. In reality, it’ll only make them appear ungrateful, arrogant, and unappreciative of other people’s efforts.

Third, some leaders rarely express their gratitude because they feel they have to wait until the “right time” to do so. This “right time” is usually a big event—for instance, one of their team members completing a huge project, or their team hitting their annual target. These leaders think that the phrase “thank you” becomes less impactful the more it’s said, and should therefore be saved for “special occasions.”

However, this simply isn’t true. People will never get sick of being thanked—it makes them feel appreciated and valued. So, you might as well thank them as often as possible (provided they deserve this effusive gratitude).

The Healthier Behavior: Say thank you, and do so often. When someone compliments you or gives you a suggestion, fight the urge to say anything but those two short words. 

Goldsmith’s Gratitude Drill

If you think you’ll struggle to get used to the idea of expressing gratitude after years of not doing so, Goldsmith suggests completing what he calls a “gratitude drill.” This drill has two simple steps:

  1. Identify the top 25 people who’ve helped you to get to your current level of career success.
  2. Send each of these people a note expressing your gratitude for the role they’ve played in your success so far. 

Not only will doing this give you valuable experience in thanking people and hopefully make you more comfortable with doing so, it’ll also stop you from becoming arrogant—from thinking that you and your amazing abilities have been the only factors in your success. It’ll remind you that actually, you’ve had a lot of help along your career journey—a realization that will keep you humble.

Bad Habit #2: Refusing to Listen to Other People

Often, successful people feel so confident in their abilities and cleverness that they think listening to others is a waste of time. They believe that they already know all the answers and the best approaches to every situation. Why should they sit around listening to ideas they’ve probably already thought of?

People may display this attitude in two main ways. First, they might simply zone out of conversations and stop taking in what other people are saying. This is probably the less harmful of the two behaviors since a lot of the time, the person speaking won’t realize that their conversational partner has mentally checked out. They’ll remain oblivious to the fact that they’re not being listened to.

The second, more harmful way that people display that they don’t want to listen to people is by actively trying to hurry the person who’s talking. For example, they may look at their watch, tap their fingers impatiently, or even tell the person to hurry up and get to the point. 

These actions send the message, “you’re not good or clever enough for me to bother listening to you, so I want to get you out of the way quickly.” Not only will this destroy the speaker’s confidence, but it’ll also make them resent you. Nobody likes being made to feel like an unimportant annoyance. 

The Healthier Behavior: Respectfully listen to any ideas that people put forward to you, no matter how busy you are. Giving people the time of day is the only way to maintain their respect and make them feel valued. 

Becoming a Good Listener

To properly combine listening and leadership, you need to put the following three principles into action:

Principle #1: Let the other person speak. It’s impossible to listen to someone effectively if you’re the one doing all the talking, or if you keep interrupting the other person. Just keep quiet and let the person get their point across. Once they’ve finished, ask them a question about what they’ve just said. This will demonstrate that you’ve been listening. Plus, it’ll give the person the opportunity to start talking again as they answer your question. 

You might worry that keeping quiet throughout a conversation will make you appear like you have nothing interesting to say. However, Goldsmith argues that this is rarely the case. The other person will be so grateful to have been given the chance to speak that they’ll see you in nothing but a positive light. 

Principle #2: Give the other person your full attention while they’re talking. Don’t multitask when someone’s talking to you. For example, don’t start to type out an email mid-conversation. Likewise, don’t let yourself get distracted by events going on around you. For instance, don’t start paying close attention to what your boss is doing across the room and subsequently “zone out” of your conversation. All of these actions give the impression that you don’t really care about the person who’s speaking or what they’re saying, and therefore can’t be bothered to pay full attention to them. 

Principle #3: Be mindful when deciding how to respond to the other person. Ask yourself whether what you’re about to say is going to make the other person feel respected, appreciated, and listened to. If it’s not—for example, if your initial instinct is to dismiss what the person’s said outright and immediately change the subject—consider whether there’s a better way forward. Should you maybe hold your tongue in order to spare the other person’s feelings and protect your reputation as a good listener?

The Importance of Gratitude and Listening in Leadership

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  • Why many middle managers find it hard to move up the corporate ladder
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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