By Author(s): Jim Broman 
Published Saturday, October 31, 2009
| From the November 2009  Issue of FireRescue 
The mayor stood and walked to the podium, pulling a small set of speaking notes from his jacket. He glanced across the banquet tables filled with city employees, volunteers and family members. After noting several challenges of the previous year, he ticked off an impressive list of accomplishments.
We could not have realized these successes without the hard work of so many people over the past year,” he stated. “I want to especially thank our public safety personnel, both police and firefighters, who went above and beyond to keep our community safe.” His words were followed by warm applause and smiles throughout the room.
After several other acknowledgments, the mayor declared the prior year a “success” and challenged all to continue their dedicated service throughout the current year. Polite applause followed his remarks, and the annual city recognition banquet drew to a close.
As the tables cleared and people headed for the exits, Lt. Campbell turned to another fire officer and commented, “It was nice to hear that we did a good job.”
“But what was he referring to?” asked Capt. Jacobs. “I don’t think he has a clue what we do.”
The city spent money and time for the purpose of “thanking” its employees and volunteers, but for some people, the message never came through.
Who to Thank
Now is the Thanksgiving season, a time to openly give thanks to those around us. Although an annual “thank you” has value, those who surround you and contribute to the success of the organization deserve timely and meaningful expressions of appreciation.
Further, linking the “thank you” to actions and efforts that truly deserve the recognition dramatically increases its value and impact. Unmerited or token praise sounds hollow, and it tarnishes the expression for those who deserve recognition. Likewise, insincerity or overuse can erode a leader’s credibility or cheapen the value of this critical communication.
While thank you’s must be sincere and often are spontaneous, success in this area of leadership requires both planning and intentional action. Knowing your “audience” is an important first step in effective communication.
In the workplace, be aware of four distinct groups who need and want to hear your thanks.
- Your team: You depend on these people to accomplish the work and carry out the mission. Sure, you give them regular performance feedback and provide an annual performance review. But have you ever looked them directly in the eyes—individually—and said “thank you” for their specific and unique contributions? If you haven’t done this, you have some work to do. If you have, how have they reacted to your praise? A positive response suggests successful communication; indifference or ambivalence suggests you might need to re-examine your approach.
- Your colleagues: These people are your peers, collaborators and those with whom you work toward success—and whom you console in times of disappointment. Working relations among personnel assigned to different companies or shifts often turn stormy when officers neglect to give words of appreciation. Instead, improve the climate by giving peers thanks for good work or assistance.
- Your superiors: Too frequently, I hear or witness a presumptive conclusion among officers that the “boss” is inept. Exploring the germ of this attitude reveals poor communication, unfounded assumptions and rumor-driven lore. So your superior officer has never thanked you? Why not work to change the relationship? Begin by thanking those above you for their actions—big or small—that you value.
- Your public: I received a hand-written note several years ago from a citizen who was “deeply impressed” when one of our firefighters thanked her for allowing the crew to come into her home and help her. He was thanking her for the trust she placed in us. We solved her immediate medical need, and that firefighter created a lasting, positive connection with an important constituent.
Tips for Thanks
Now that you recognize and understand these various audiences, use the following tips to deliver your message.
- Be sincere: Your message must ring true to your audience or it will simply drift across space with little or no impact. Insincere words trivialize the effort and negate your attempt to show appreciation. Kudos are futile where there is no connection to positive results. Thanking the third-string athlete who never left the bench for helping to win an important game won’t resonate. However, if his efforts in practice helped other team members to perform better, you have a valuable message to share.
- Be direct: Go directly to the individual(s) who deserves your words of appreciation. Be aware of who might observe your actions and consider the impact—positive or negative—your words may have on them; in some cases, you may want to extend your thanks in a private setting.
- Be specific: “I want to thank you for all you’ve done,” is far too broad a message and may well leave your audience wondering about what you mean. The more generic your message, the more diluted it becomes for the receiver. What was it about this person’s actions that drew your favorable attention? For example: “Lt. Ayres, when you took the initiative to get the room all set up for our training, that was a big help to me. Our training began on time and allowed me to deal with another priority issue. Thank you for seeing the need and stepping up to take care of it.”
- Be brief: Here’s where planning is critical even when the “thank you” is fairly spontaneous. Knowing your target audience, focus your words on describing the specific behavior/action you appreciate. Too many words, especially ambiguous superlatives, again dilute the message and erode the impact. “Fantastic,” “awesome,” “super”—we’ve heard these words so many times. Focused attention, a specific message and well chosen words can compound the impact of your message and energize the recipient.
- Be gone: Once you’ve communicated your message and your recipient has the opportunity to briefly respond, be prepared to move on. In some situations, it means changing the subject; in others, it means physically leaving. If possible, try to keep this a “stand alone” moment; don’t inject other issues and business. Allow the recipient to enjoy the moment and reflect on your words.
- Be thorough: Carry your actions and words forward in the form of a note to the person’s personnel file or supervisor’s log so that it doesn’t get lost. If appropriate, pass it along to your superior officer for their awareness and potential action. Imagine, after previously being thanked by your supervising officer, a chief officer approaches on the following day and says, “Capt. Hollister told me how you helped get all of our training accomplished even during a very busy shift; thank you for your extra effort.” Wouldn’t that make your day?
As the seasonal themes of Thanksgiving fill our consciousness, leaders should take the time to intentionally and genuinely communicate appreciation—a “thank you”—to those whom you lead, follow, collaborate with and serve.
Even when the message is spontaneous, leaders should plan to deliver a sincere, specific thank you that is direct and only as long as needed. Then pass the good news along. Offering meaningful words of appreciation can inform observers of your mindfulness, can encourage more “extra mile” effort by the recipient, and can lift the attitude and service ethic of your entire organization. Such positive energy is good for your health!
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