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Thankful Project Management

By Carl Pritchard,

Thanks may be the key to getting those around you to outperform and feel more energized.

As the holiday season roars into full swing, we have plenty to be thankful for. If you're reading this, you likely have the gift of sight. If you're a member of ProjectConnections, you have the gift of insight. You probably found this website some time ago, thanks to someone who suggested it to you. And those are just the little things to be thankful for here. On the much broader horizon, you have stuff to be thankful for on a grand scale. And thanks may be the key to getting those around you to outperform their own past performance and to feel more energized and enthused about their jobs.

My mother-in-law is perhaps the most gifted person I've ever known for doing this. She can draft people to do a host of household chores, enlist them to run errands and support her on a dozen different missions. And how does she reward them? With thanks. But Carol's "thank you" is special. After a day of doing what she needs done, she often offers, in her most sincere voice, "I cannot thank you enough for everything you do. I genuinely appreciate you." As she looks you squarely in the eyes and offers that note, the day's efforts suddenly seem worthwhile. The investment of your time and talent feel meaningful. It's not just because she said "thank you." It's because she meant it. It's because she really seems to appreciate you as an individual and the ways in which you have enriched her life.

Carol's "thank you" is special.

As project managers, we rarely (if ever) have formal authority, so we don't have the ability to pour rewards on others and lavish them with promotions or bonuses. But we do have the ability to give thanks, and we should.

English poet Alexander Pope spoke of the notion of "damning with faint praise" (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 1734), which is the trap into which many project managers fall. We do this by repeating the same praise for the same performance over and over again. We do this by praising team members equally for unequal performance. We do this by making the praise a rote ritual without specifics. If we're going to generate real value with our thanks, we need to do it with a Carol-like approach:

  1. Identify specifically what you're praising the individual for and the benefits derived from their performance. It's one thing to say "Thanks for turning that in on time." It's another thing entirely to say, "Thanks for getting that together exactly the way the client wants it. They always give us a lot of credit for not forcing them to come back for rework."
  2. Recognize the special and specific contributions of the individuals. "I could see your hand in the code here, and I really appreciate your consistent approach to error-checking."
  3. Acknowledge any hardships they might have had in the process of helping you, and let them know that you plan to avoid creating such hardships in the future. "I realize you were late picking up Billy from daycare a couple of times because of this. I will really try to ensure our timing is better going forward."
  4. Let them know that you appreciate them. Not their work. Them.

The last one is something that is a very special talent, developed over years. Carol was an elementary school teacher for decades, and knows the importance of sincerity, eye contact, and well-developed personal relationships. Her ability to tell you that you are unique in her life and how you are unique in her life elevates the relationship.

It also elevates performance. I don't mind helping my mother-in-law. Why? It's not because I'll earn bonus points with my wife. It's not because I'm getting paid for it (I'm not). It's not because I'll somehow get widespread recognition. It's because she's thankful.

During the holidays, it's easy to express thanks for a host of different things. We can be thankful for the presents received. We can be thankful for the meals we share. We can be thankful for the presence of family and friends.

But on our projects, we can accomplish a great deal more than we thought possible if we find it in ourselves to be genuinely thankful to those we work with. Telling them we appreciate them is a healthy start. Contacting clients and telling them who on the team is worth appreciating is an even bigger step. Spreading the thanks for our team members up to management, to their peers and to others in our work environment creates the potential for a virtual explosion of thanks!

And if you're not up to that?

For one moment, become an elementary teacher. Look your team member squarely in the eyes, and identify what they've done well. Then simply tell them, "I really appreciate you."

Carl Pritchard appreciates you. He also appreciates your comments and insights on his columns at He welcomes your thoughts and insights at Thanks for taking the time to read this and share your thoughts! Happy Holidays.

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