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This Four Letter Word Is the Enemy of Gratitude

If you want to make others feel appreciated, avoid this behavior.

Jeshoots on Unsplash
Source: Jeshoots on Unsplash

This time of year, we speak a lot about gratitude. In any human organization, gratitude serves as social glue—so much so that researchers suggest gratitude may have evolved for the purpose of strengthening relationships. Understanding gratitude’s evolutionary purpose for bonding groups may shed light on why appreciation plays such a critical role in retaining employees and keeping them happy.

And though expressing gratitude sounds simple, the research shows we’re actually pretty bad at it. A 2016 Gallup survey found only one-third of U.S. employees reported receiving recognition or praise for doing good work in the past seven days.

A common behavior that undermines gratitude: "Justing"

Part of my job as a psychotherapist and leadership coach is to recognize good intentions (most of us want to be people who make others feel appreciated), but also point out the obstacles that get in the way of those good intentions manifesting as effective action.

One pervasive, often well-intentioned act of “anti-gratitude” that I’ve noticed is what I call “justing” all over someone’s work. “Justing” minimizes someone’s contribution while simultaneously requesting their contribution. It is an effective way to undermine any future recognition before the employee even begins a project or piece of work.

I’ll share an example as a way to illustrate this likely familiar, yet unnamed concept.

It’s 3 PM the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Sally is ready for a little respite. As she works feverishly to finish final tasks before her short vacation, her manager, Roy, approaches her desk. “Hey, Sally,” he says, “You know I’ve been slaving away to prepare for Tuesday’s deposition. Can you just review these docs? Shouldn’t be a big deal. No need to go overboard. It’s 200 pages, and at your fast pace, if you start now, you can still be out by 5 PM. I know it’s important for you to get to your family.”

In the above example, Roy seems to be considerate of Sally’s wish to leave, yet he fails to acknowledge that this two-hour task will actually keep her in the office until 7 PM since this isn’t her only remaining work. He acknowledges her fast pace, which is usually a compliment, but most of us would agree he misses the mark on “recognition.” Further, by calling this task “no big deal” and pointing out his effort (“I’ve been slaving away”), but not hers, it is unlikely Sally will feel her contribution is valued once she completed the task. Roy has “justed” all over Sally’s contribution by acting as though a fairly large ask were minimal.

“Justing” may seem so subtle a habit that it’s not even worth calling out. But when it comes to communication, subtleties matter. They’re the difference between good intentions and actual results.

Why “justing” is so common

If you want to make efforts to avoid “justing,” it helps to understand why it’s so common. In my experience, “justing” most commonly comes from one of three places:

  1. A genuine desire to lighten the load: Some people feel that if they minimize the scope of a task, it will help the other person avoid stress. For many, this actually has the opposite effect. When you spend two hours on a task that takes two hours, it feels manageable and you feel in control. When you are requested to complete a five-hour task and told it will take two hours, it’s very unlikely you will feel “on top of it.” When the requestor is a supervisor or manager, it’s likely employees will feel that they don’t have permission to “take up space” in their schedules with the task.
  2. Defending against vulnerability: In the case of Roy and Sally, Roy may feel terrible for keeping a team member late right before a holiday. He sees himself as a compassionate manager who does all he can to support work-life balance. So he minimizes the expected effort in others to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging that he is acting against his own values. You don’t want to feel you are putting someone out, so you minimize the task.
  3. Ignorance: Apparently I’m not the only one who has, regretfully, done something like asking a UX researcher to just quickly check out if this new feature works. Often we minimize a request out of an honest lack of understanding for the work it involves.

Best practices to avoid “justing” and start “recognizing”

Effective recognition occurs through a broad array of touchpoints such as a genuine thank you, celebrating small wins, or acknowledging all the contributors on a project. While it’s not the only factor, acknowledging the value of a potential contribution from the moment you are making the request plants the seeds for an employee to feel their efforts are valued. Here are three best practices to avoid “justing” and start recognizing when making a request.

  1. Be clear about your request. Share details. Avoid trying to downplay the request. As the research professor and bestselling author, Brene Brown, writes, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” At her organization, they developed a specific approach to making requests that not only emphasizes a high standard for clarity but also ensures the individual has all the resources they need to be successful. What she calls the TASC approach is a great example of an “anti-justing” practice.
  2. Consider how your request promotes autonomy, mastery, and purpose, what motivation expert Dan Pink calls the “trifecta of intrinsic motivators.” Here’s how you can apply this trifecta to avoid “justing.” Autonomy: Whenever possible make it a choice. That choice can be whether or not to do the task, or how to go about doing the task. Mastery: Align the request with an individual's strengths. Point out how their unique strengths will contribute to the success of their contribution. Purpose: Tie the request to a larger goal, so the individual understands they are contributing to a significant endeavor.
  3. Check your mindset. Some managers believe employees don’t need “recognition.” After all, isn’t a paycheck enough? It's their job to help. This mindset has a high opportunity cost when it comes to your team’s motivation and organizational commitment. Before making a request, check your own mindset, and without judgment, determine if you really do value this person’s contribution. If not, you may want to find a way, whether through self-reflection, or working with a skilled coach, to show more appreciation internally, so that any recognition you offer at the time of making a request is authentic.

Though “justing” is a subtlety of gratitude, it can undermine our otherwise good intentions. As they say, the devil is in the details. To more effectively express appreciation, try noticing when you are tempted to “just” all over someone’s contribution, and choose to go the other way. Let me know how it goes—I'll appreciate it!

This article was originally published on qz.com. This version includes modifications.

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