what got you here...Habit #17 Failing to express gratitude

Dale Carnegie liked to say that the two sweetest words in the English language were a person’s first and last name. He maintained that using them liberally in conversation was the surest way to connect with a person and disarm them. After all, who doesn’t like to hear their name on other people’s list?

I’m not sure Dale was right. To me, the sweetest words in the language are “Thank You.” They’re not only disarming and pleasant to the ear, but they help us avoid so many problems. Like apologizing, thanking is a magical super-gesture of interpersonal relations. It’s what you say when you have nothing nice to say—and it will never annoy the person hearing it.

-from “The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top” from the book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”

That book still lies unfinished on my desk because of this section alone. Out of all the business and human relations books I’ve read in the past year, none has been so naive, so misguided, so “let’s feed the fantasies of middle managers everywhere!” than that book, and this section highlights it so well.

To me, there are two main types of “Thank You”s.

The first type is the basic thank you. As you may expect, it’s just a simple expression of gratitude for relatively simple things.

I personally don’t mind about how “real” a basic thank you is; both a heartfelt thank you and a mechanical “Thank you for visiting our store!” can have those “magical” effects on interpersonal relationships. In other words, I don’t have a problem with people giving away basic thank yous. I personally follow that quote often attributed to Forrest Gump: “Always say thank you even if you don’t mean it.”

(If anything, there’s a serious lack of it in society today. Back in my stint as a cybercafe attendant, customers rarely said thank you to me or the owner of the shop.)

My problem lies in the other type of thank you.

The other type of thank you is the “Thank you for saving my ass” thank you.

On the surface, there’s no problem with this type of thank you. If somebody saved your ass, saying thank you is the least you could do to that person.

There’s also no problem about people failing to say thank you to people who saved their asses. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about stuck-up managers who don’t say thank you to their subordinates even after the latter goes through hell and back for the former, but in reality, most managers in decent companies know how to express their gratitude for such actions. It’s part of basic management training; you don’t need a silly New York Times bestseller to tell you about that.

My problem with this type of thank you is that people often fail to address the underlying reasons why that person had to save the day. People are just content with simply thanking the person (with or without accompanying rewards) and ignoring the big picture.

I’m sure this problem is pretty common in all industries, but I think this is more prevalent in software development than in others. With the high demand for new software systems and the overall immaturity of the field, software projects often degenerate into inefficient code-and-fix death marches where heroism and firefighting (both frequent recipients of the second type of thank you) are the cornerstones of “progress”.

The sad part about software development is that people think this is normal. And even worse, many think that all of this inefficient heroism and firefighting is something to be proud of. Peopleware has a section where a manager bragged about burning out his team, and a recent blog article making its rounds around devs also provides some insights to this phenomenon. Even in my former workplace, we tend to brag (mostly tongue in cheek, though) about getting BINGOs (5 days straight OT) and JACKPOTs (7 days straight OT).


In short, I am not saying that expressing gratitude is wrong, but excessive “thank you”s for people going beyond what they are hired to do should be considered a symptom of a larger problem.

As a manager, it is your job to find that problem and fix it instead of relying on people to cover up for you.

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