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From Where We Sit

Overcoming thanklessness

Anton Ng

THERE is a widow with two teenagers. Several months have passed since her husband died after years of battling an incurable disease, which drained the family’s financial resources.

Since the widow has no college diploma and meaningful work experience, getting herself employed was never really a viable option. Unemployed and with two children to support, she relied on God, and her wits and determination, to support her kids until they receive their college degrees.

What did she get in return? Praises from her family and friends. From one of her children, however, lukewarm gratefulness paired with the occasional “She’s this, she’s that! Why did she do this, or why did she do that?!”

Such display of ingratitude and brazen disregard for loving efforts are what sometimes make parenting a thankless vocation. Not always, of course, but throughout one’s time as a parent, there will be moments when one feels like there is a knife pierced through his or her heart.

This feeling is in no way confined to a parent-child relationship. This is also sometimes felt by those in leadership positions in any organization, though at a much lower intensity.

Whenever they receive feedback from employees, either though surveys or focus group discussions, leaders would normally hear complaints or comments. Some complaints are valid, and the leaders accept them, but there are also comments that would make one sigh and say: “Why does it feel like I have not been doing anything as a leader?”

I would like to believe that leaders generally look out for the well-being of their employees, and whenever there are comments that question their commitment to that, they feel as if a knife was pierced through their hearts as well.

A potential and understandable reaction of leaders would be to feel betrayed and disappointed, especially when they genuinely think they have done a lot to address a certain issue. This feeling of disappointment can reach a point of wanting to not do anything altogether or even sever the relationship. However, leaders should be very mindful of how one would react to these kinds of situations.

Leadership is sometimes thankless. It is a given. The question is: What should we do, then? Before doing something that might forever ruin their relationship with their workers, leaders might want to consider the following:

— Step back and listen very carefully to the feedback given. The feedback may make them sound ungrateful, but underneath the words expressed lies the essence of what employees look for. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to flawlessly express themselves. I am not saying that leaders should conjure assumptions to be applied on what was said, but to merely revisit the feedback and be more prudent in understanding what was said. Maybe there is a need to open an extended dialogue or understand the feedback through a different perspective. The main thing is to avoid jumping into a hasty conclusion before understanding what was really said.

— Assess past actions. There are comments in which leaders are confronted with this question: “I already devoted so much time to address a particular employee issue, but why is the employee still looking for an action from me?” It might be wise to assess if past actions in response to previous issues raised are valued similarly by the recipient of those actions. What may seem valuable to the leader might not be enough for the employee, at least in the latter’s view. This should be considered.

— Be transparent with your response. After ensuring that the feedback has been truly understood and past actions have been assessed, leaders should be transparent with their responses. Transparency in leadership reflects humility and respect toward employees. It also requires a certain level of vulnerability on the part of the leader. Whether the response is to admit fault, stand ground or commit to continue the conversation on the issue, transparency goes a long way in showing the other party that their comments are valued by giving the feedback its due.

— Accept that there are times when your leadership style may not be for everyone. Amid all these, leaders should not overburden themselves by trying to be liked by everyone. At the end of the day, leaders can only do so much to address employee feedback. There are other responsibilities that also require serious attention. This feeling of thanklessness must not paralyze leaders, which may hinder them in guiding their organizations forward. We should evaluate ourselves based on our best efforts — not on the results, but on whether we have truly given our best.

The widow in my story did not let the ingratitude of her child stop her from thinking of the child’s well-being. She did not use the thanklessness as an excuse to ditch her responsibilities as a parent. She persevered in understanding her child, took stock of her actions and never wavered in her love. For that, her son is forever grateful. May all of us learn to overcome thanklessness for, at some point, all of us have been ungrateful as well.

Anton Ng is a partner in the Audit and Assurance division of P&A Grant Thornton, one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 23 partners and more than 900 staff members. We’d like to hear from you! Tweet us:
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As published in The Manila Times, dated 21 November 2019