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The power of thanks

Gratitude can be inspiring – but a forced 'thank you' is pointless, hollow
LiAngelo Ball
UCLA basketball players Cody Riley, LiAngelo Ball, and Jalen Hill speak at a press conference at UCLA after flying back from China where they were detained on suspicion of shoplifting, in Los Angeles, on Nov. 15, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Todd Humber

I really appreciate a good thank you. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but a compliment for a job well done always resonates.

But I’m equally turned off by the concept of forced gratitude — a thank you should be given, not demanded. Otherwise, it is rendered as meaningless as a forced apology.

As leaders in the workplace, we should never demand a thank you for simply doing our jobs. First, it’s unbecoming and makes you look small. Second, it is pretty much guaranteed to not get the result you desire.

This all crossed my mind while watching CNN last night. LaVar Ball, in a highly entertaining interview with host Chris Cuomo, refused to issue a thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump for his role in getting his son out of China. (Well, I found it entertaining — my partner rolled her eyes and left halfway through the banter. Entertainment is in the eye of the beholder.)

LiAngelo Ball was arrested in China for alleged shoplifting from three different stores in Hangzhou, along with his teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill. Trump, who was visiting Asia at the time, said he spoke to the Chinese president and helped secure their release.

China, quite rightly, takes a dim view of shoplifting. The jail sentences reportedly range from three years to 10 years if convicted. These young men are, by any counts, fortunate to be home in the United States and not sitting in a Chinese prison.

But let’s get back to the concept of a forced thank you. On Nov. 15, after the players were released by China, Trump tweeted out the following statement:

“Do you think the three UCLA basketball players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

The players all thanked Trump when they were back on U.S. soil. But that was only after his Tweet caused a firestorm of media coverage and really left the young men with no choice but to thank the president. As a leader, I would find that … completely meaningless. Trump ate it up.

“To the three UCLA basketball players I say: You’re welcome, go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made your release possible and HAVE A GREAT LIFE! Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life.”

A thank you requested, a thank you received. End of story, right?

Well, no.

And this is where LaVar Ball comes in — he refused to thank the president for his role in getting his son out of China. And Trump, well, he couldn’t just let that go.

“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Trump tweeted.

He went on to say “… should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!”

Last night on CNN, Ball said: “Did he help the boys get out? I don’t know… if I was going to thank somebody, I’d probably thank President Xi.”

“I say thank you when I see something,” he said. “If you help, you shouldn’t have to say anything. Let him do his political affairs and me handle my son and let’s just stay in our lane.”

It has all turned what was a very positive story — the U.S. president intervening to get three Americans home — into an ugly back and forth over a lack of gratitude.

Had Trump quietly gotten these men out — and not publicly pondered over whether or not he would receive a thank you — he would have received plenty of laurels from surprising quarters. That would have been much more consequential. Instead, he gets thank you by rote.

We can all agree that a well-timed thank you can be inspiring in the workplace. But getting a requested one is hollow, and demanding it of the people you did a “favour” for? That’s pointless.

And now, the video...

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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