Lessons on Leadership

When “The Thought” Can Actually Cause Harm

By Jacquelyn Adams

“It’s the thought that counts.” We have all heard the phrase. Many of us have also been on the receiving end of nice thoughts that simply made the situation worse. It could be the raise promised last year or the company trip that never came to fruition. These workplace disappointments can result in resentment, even if they were initially presented with the best intentions.

There may be instances when it is clear that the thought didn’t count, for example, the infamous Toyota vs toy Yoda incident back in 2002. Whether this was nefarious intentions or an ill-conceived joke, it is clear that “the thought” failed epically.

However, there are also many managers out there whose ideas fall into more of a grey area. I am looking at you, well-intentioned, big dreamers (which, if I am honest, can involve looking in the mirror, too). For many of us, this comes from a desire to show employees how much we appreciate their hard work. Maybe we can swing a casual dress day as a small thank you, but, as big dreamers, we have our eyes on the prize. We look at the future and see beautiful opportunities for not just a pizza party, but a high-quality catered meal, raises, and even a company trip. All it takes is landing this new client or releasing the new product this quarter instead of next. It is our natural inclination to see the dominoes lining up perfectly, so, in the moment, these bonuses seem like a forgone conclusion. We have this grand vision and want to share those hopes and expectations with those around us.

Unfortunately, only about five out of every fifty of my big dreams come to fruition. Over time, I have realized that this can be hard on those around me. And when it comes to the workplace, I have seen that if expectations aren’t met, it can be challenging, not only for business, but also on morale. So, here are a few tips that managers can keep in mind when considering whether their “thought will count.”

Start with self-evaluation

How often in the last two years have you mentioned a bonus, perk, or some other incentive to employees (even in passing) and then not been able to deliver? It might be necessary to ask another person for feedback as we might forget some, especially as some of these ideas might be things you mentioned once and they promptly forgot. But if this is a trend in our lives, they are less forgettable to the people around us. Instead, each new wishful thought can snowball on the top of previous ones, and instead of feeling appreciated, employees start feeling resentful when raises are mentioned. Slowly, it can cause aspects of trust to wear out over time.

Determine the cost/benefits of sharing

When you have a specific idea, consider whether the employees have any power to make the initiative succeed or fail, or does success rely solely on factors beyond their control – such as management decisions or a different department’s work or even stock prices–? If there is nothing they can do to contribute towards success, remaining tightlipped and keeping any potential reward a “surprise” might be the best option. Again, remember that building resentment and breaking trust can be the cost of unfulfilled expectations. Break the cycle by waiting until the desired outcome is more secure before sharing the exciting news.


Share with a safe person

Finally, let’s acknowledge that bottling dreams is hard. So, when we need to spill the beans, let’s try to find safe people to share with who won’t be personally disappointed if this ends up being one of the 45 duds… or maybe make it a few people since 45 duds require a lot of patient listening. This could involve a mentor who might have insights into making success more likely. Or perhaps a peer in your field who can relate to and understand the mechanics of your endeavor. Or maybe you have good listeners in your personal life who would be up for hearing about some of your attempts to show your employees your appreciation. Whoever these people may be, the most crucial part is that they will not be personally disappointed or resentful if the endeavor fails.

So, for all my dreamers out there, does the thought count? Well, sort of… Employees can see when it is heartfelt, and you have good intentions. But it is helpful to realize that your thought versus reality ratio can significantly determine whether bitterness grows over time. Like so many things, it will be a balancing act,  because even when we practice restraint about who we will tell and when, there will still be failures or mixed results. The key is knowing how our actions affect those around us and doing our best based on that information. Keep imagining possibilities! Because if you are like me, making those five big visions come to life is much better than not trying.

Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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