The Importance of Being Grateful: What Every CEO Should Know

“Why do employees leave?”

I’ve been asked this question many times over my 30 years of coaching and consulting. My answer is always the same. The great majority of the time it is because there is a lack of gratitude.

There may be other reasons — money, time, travel, no opportunity for promotion, and so forth — but every one of these things is, at some level, an expression of gratitude. And gratitude is very difficult for many CEOs to express.

I’ve seen the exit surveys and exit interview reports. I’ve coached many executives who were considering leaving or have left companies. I myself have left. I can say that without a doubt, the core issue of why people leave a company is a lack of gratitude.

The definition of gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; a readiness to show appreciation for and to return the kindness.” Few, if any, CEOs — and therefore their cultures — have any level of meaningful gratitude for their executives and employees. Rarely is there a readiness to show appreciation.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude translates to a genuine thankfulness for employees and executives. But when asked, employees and executives report that they rarely get a sense of real gratitude from their CEO. A CEO might say the words, but they aren’t received as authentic. The words seem hollow and less-than-true. More often, employees and executives feel the CEO sees them as objects to be moved around in order to produce a certain result.

To truly express gratitude, one must use language that comes from a place of truth: wholehearted, unreserved, and unassuming. The words used to communicate gratitude need to convey strong approval of who people are and what they do. Gratitude speaks to the best way employees and executives want to be known — and how they want to be seen.

My assertion: If gratitude were present, your employees would feel valued, known and honored. They would feel less like as entities to produce an outcome; they wouldn’t suspect they were there only to further the CEO’s recognition and fame.

I understand that as the CEO, it’s you ultimately you who signs the checks; I understand that executives and employees have jobs to do — they have SOPs to follow, they have departments to run, they have expectations that need to be met. All that is true. But aren’t those simply expectations? When expectations are all there is, there is no room for gratitude.

When you are grateful for something, your relationships are distinctly different from when you expect something. Expectation displaces gratitude.

What’s your level of appreciation for people? What’s your level of thankfulness? What’s your level of caring? What’s your capacity for empathy?

There is no room for acknowledgment when you function solely from a place of expectation. Unfulfilled expectations invariably leads to conflict, which leads to communication and relationship breakdowns, which leads to people looking for the exit.

As a CEO, when all you have is expectations, you’re placed in front of the line. “I expect” is an unqualified declaration that you feel you are more important than they are. You deserve it more than they do. The expectations come from a place of “I deserve because I am the CEO.” Entitlement displaces gratitude.

When you are grateful for who works for you, your relationships move from hierarchical to reciprocal. But in order to be grateful and have this kind of relationship, you need to be vulnerable and authentic. When you are grateful, you genuinely appreciate people and their contributions.

Take a Look Inward

Finally, try using gratitude as the lens through which you examine your own life. How much gratitude do you have for yourself? What do you notice? How grateful are you for your family, for your company, for your job, for the folks in the C-Suite? Listen to your thoughts — are they complaining, judging, assessing? There is no gratitude in these thoughts.

I am writing this right before Thanksgiving because that is the day we are asked to be grateful. When you are truly grateful, you are standing in a place where you can authentically tell people how much you appreciate them and acknowledge their contribution. When gratitude is authentic, it touches the heart.

The bottom line for me? When gratitude thrives in a culture, when it is expressed regularly, when it is authentically spoken, people do not leave — and if they do, they leave without resentment or any damage to others or themselves.


“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.”

—Zig Ziglar