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The Impact of Expressing Gratitude and Appreciation at Work

Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

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A few weekends ago, I was at Edmond's weekend birthday gathering, lightly facilitating some sharing of impact — what we appreciated in Edmond, what we saw in him that he might not see in himself. A dear friend of his commented that most people don't get this level of appreciation and celebration reflected back to them until they are dead. At funerals, people give themselves permission to bring their emotions, to reminisce on favorite memories, to share the life-changing impacts that person has had on them. And it feels cathartic and connecting, but the person who has passed isn't hearing a word of it.

And so when my birthday rolled around, I decided to use the once-a-year Facebook attention to ask for some words of appreciation. I posted a few prompts asking for people to share favorite memories, or an impact I had on them.

I received beautiful feedback shares, from a high school acquaintance saying that I had once told her she deserved far better in her romantic relationships and she was moved by the kind words, to my first Computer Science teacher in high school sharing that I had inspired many other female high schoolers to dive into computer science, to someone I had met once sharing that my writing inspired them to be a better leader and to be more open and vulnerable.

What are you waiting for?

Too often, we wait until there is an ending or closing to say kind words, or we don't give appreciative feedback at all. The ending doesn't have to be death, but it might be waiting until a beloved employee announces they're leaving a job. Heart-warming emails pour in, in response to the farewell email, or some words are said at the company all-hands, or people write emotional notes of appreciation.

When I left Medium, I received beautiful and brief emails from people I had only interacted with once or twice, sharing that even in their different function, they were inspired by seeing me show up as a senior woman at the company. I hadn't known that. One of my direct reports showed up a few minutes late to our last 1:1 because she was writing a letter — a hand-written letter! And I was presented with a foam board with more notes from the engineering team and other coworkers.

I treasure those words. They reflect back to me what I already know, which is that in an imperfect system, I have lived and acted true to my values and what long-term success means to me. And, at the same time, I wonder what might have been different for me if I had deeply known the appreciation throughout my time there.

The impact of appreciative feedback

A few months ago, Edmond and I conducted a few dozen interviews over Skype to find the patterns in frustrations, pains, hopes, and dreams of engineers, tech leads, engineering managers, CTOs, VPs of Engineering. What struck us is the common theme that across all these roles, so many people cared deeply about doing well and were trying to do their best, and we heard this over and over again:

“I don't even know if I'm doing a good job.”

When I reflect on the moments in my own career at tech companies — pre-Co Leadership — that I've received meaningful appreciative feedback, these are the ones that come to mind:

  • In written feedback at Google, at a time when I still struggled with feeling uncertainty and imposter-ness, my manager shared that the level at which I was doing my work was on par with what was expected of much more senior engineers. The impact was that I was able to leave behind a lot of those feelings of having snuck into Google through their internship program (rather than the normal full slate of rigorous interviews), and had some concrete calibration of how I was doing, beyond “keep doing what you're doing!”
  • A year or so after I left Google, I returned to have lunch with a senior engineer who had been my mentor during my time there. He mentioned in conversation that he felt like my career was a rocket ship, and soon he would see me as a CTO of a large tech company. The impact was that he showed me a glimpse of how he saw me as a leader before I saw myself that way and how highly he had thought of my work when we were on the same team.
  • Verbal feedback that I had projected confidence and competence when presenting at an all-hands, and that the way I deflected irrelevant questions with a friendly “sure, happy to talk more about that later — come by our desks” instilled a sense of ease and trust from the audience. The impact was that I now knew I had turned a corner from a hesitant nervous public speaker to someone with presence, and it made me more aware of my impact on the audience.
  • On returning from my second maternity leave, I felt I was doing alright (better than after my first leave). As I transitioned from 4 days a week back to 5 days a week, my manager matter-of-factly said in a 1:1, “It feels like after your maternity leave, you leveled up a huge step in terms of impact. I bet a lot of people didn't even knew you were working only 4 days a week.” The impact was that I had a better sense of the perception people had of me and my work, and that rather than just doing alright, I was kicking ass.

In each of these, something that was clear as day to the other person was obscured for me, and by sharing what they had seen or noticed in me, it shifted how I viewed myself.

We are used to code reviews in which we only leave comments pointing out things that are wrong, or ways in which the code doesn't conform to the style guide, with maybe a quick comment at the end to say “thanks for doing this!” What would it look like to work in a culture in which sharing appreciation and gratitude in the moment were as secondhand as checking our email, or showing up for daily stand-ups?

So how do we make that a reality?

Anil Dash kicked off this twitter thread about how Glitch fostered a culture of gratitude, and Camille Fournier shared how they did this at Rent The Runway. And Jen Dennard of Range Labs wrote this post on building a culture of gratitude through high frequency and personalized gratitude catered to how each individual receives gratitude most meaningfully. Edmond and I try to express gratitude when we feel it, and also reflect in our monthly debriefs with a prompt around what we're grateful for.

When I first started coach training a year ago, the coaching skill of “acknowledgement” — noticing something and appreciating it out-loud about the other person — was the most difficult for me. It felt awkward, inauthentic, contrived. Positive feedback in the form of “good job” felt like a pat on the head, condescending almost. I imagine it feels that way for many people — and so we shy away from it, hoping that people already know what we appreciate about them.

I've found that more specific prompts guide me and make it feel more structured and less awkward to share appreciation and gratitude.

Edmond and I created these prompts to celebrate our birthdays, and they work just as well for the workplace:

  • What quality do you see in this person, that they might not see in themselves?
  • What is the most noticeable change you've seen since you started working with this person?
  • What qualities do you most appreciate about this person? What do you see as possible for them if they lean into these qualities more fully?
  • What is your favorite memory of this person?

The other learning from my birthday is that if you want this type of feedback, ask for it. I asked for appreciative birthday letters or cards from a few people dear to me and received notes that I will treasure deeply. A year ago, I had never run a workshop in my life, and Edmond shared with me the changes he's seen in me as a workshop co-leader, transforming from a sometimes shy facilitator to someone leading and filling the room with a bold and confident presence.

Before each of your 1:1s this week, take a moment to consider these prompts and share a piece of appreciative feedback. And then, in whatever way feels comfortable for you — perhaps in the same 1:1, or in a Slack thread, or email request — tell people that you're looking to better understand your strengths and the impact you have on the people around you, and would love if people could answer one of these prompts.

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Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

Read More
The Impact of Expressing Gratitude and Appreciation at Work
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