how can I tell my boss how much I appreciate him?

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A reader writes:

My boss, who I have worked for since 2006, is a wonderful manager. Working with him has been truly an eye-opening experience as to what a good manager actually is. He has been very supportive, he never micromanages and truly leads by example. He has had my back throughout a health issue I have struggled with and it is obvious to me that he sees that I am a valuable, strong team player despite time away from work due to my health. Any other manager would handle it very differently.

A couple of years ago, I gave him a nice pen and a card telling him how much I appreciate him. It seemed to make him uncomfortable and things were kind of awkward that day afterwards. Every once in a while, I will just tell him he does a great job and that I appreciate everything he does. He kind of just shrugs it off. I heard another department manager telling someone that he tells his staff never to give him a gift, so I wondered if there is this unspoken rule that I am unaware of. Regardless, I have this need to let him know how I feel and I don’t know how to do it effectively without making it uncomfortable.

Do you have any ideas on the subject? I was thinking since it is the holidays it might be a better time. Any ideas would be helpful!

Well, here’s the thing:  Gift-giving should be about the recipient … and in your case, you have a recipient who has shown you that he gets uncomfortable when you put the focus on your appreciation of him. So notes are out — they can be a great option for some people, but not for your particular boss. He’s shown he doesn’t like them, and you should respect that, just like you wouldn’t give chocolates to someone who doesn’t like chocolate, even if you really liked those particular chocolates.

If you’re absolutely determined to give him something, make it a small food item — baked goods, a bottle of wine, whatever — with a very brief note. Like two sentences. You can say “happy holidays” and you can say “thanks for everything you do,” and that’s it.

However, I’d urge you to forego giving your boss anything, unless it’s tradition in your office (but it doesn’t sound like it is). There’s a school of etiquette (to which I subscribe) that says that you don’t give gifts “up” when there’s a power disparity — because it can be awkward or there can be the appearance of obligation or because it can appear kiss-assy.

Really, the best gift you can give your boss is to do an awesome job and look for ways to make his life easier. And it sounds like that’s all he wants.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    A few times now, I’ve seen you state your opinion about giving gifts “up”. But if everyone else is doing it – and you don’t – you risk looking like some kind of jerk. Don’t take the dynamics of office culture for granted. I am in a new workplace this holiday season and people give gifts to their higher-ups here, in general.

  2. Dawn

    Be happy that your boss doesn’t need flattering to be happy, be happy that you don’t have to spend your money to keep up the status quo, adsorb all you can from your boss, and silently file away “Be a gracious gift receiver” into your “ways I can be more awesome” file!

  3. Nethwen

    As someone who gets uncomfortable when just about anyone gives me a gift for no reason (not a holiday, etc.) or gives unexpected verbal praise, I might try to figure out what it was that made your boss uncomfortable. For me, a note would be fine, but a gift item of any kind or an out-of-the-blue “I really appreciate you because…” verbal comment would make me feel uncomfortable. Then I might act awkward for a bit because I’m wondering what it is you want and if you don’t want anything, did I respond in a way that lets you feel affirmed that you did me the good thing you intended.

    Like Alison says, the gift should be about the recipient. Good for you for being observant enough to notice your boss’s discomfort and trying to find a way to fulfill your need to say thanks while allowing him to be comfortable, too.

  4. Anonymous

    This may or may not be appropriate depending on the kind of person your boss is, but what about a note to *his* boss telling him how great he is? At a lot of companies performance review season is coming up, and a well-timed “boy I sure do love working for him” might go a long way. Then, you’re also spared the awkwardness of telling him to his face.

    That said, if it’s the kind of place where going over your boss’ head (even if it’s for something nice) is frowned upon, this may not be the best idea.

    1. fposte

      I think it’s worth exploring, though. Another possibility is to pay it forward–do what you can for the younger or more junior people around you as a tribute to somebody who’s done it for you.

      1. Jesse

        I love the pay-it-forward concept. Right now I’m in a position where I’m getting a lot of help from people as I’m moving my way up in my career. For a while I felt like I needed to give them thanks for how they helped me. But I’m also remembering that the best thanks I can give is to watch how they treat me, and repeat that onto others.

  5. binkle

    Yes to AAM’s “make his life easier” and fposte’s “pay it forward” and Anon 4:39 “tell his boss.”
    To tell someone how great they are (as a teammate, subordinate or manager) – tell someone else – it usually gets back to the person in a nice way. And be specific too. To tell my boss about a teammate: “Dave helped a lot me on the X project – he really knows Excel formulas.” Or to tell a higher-up about your own superior, “Mary was great in running interference on this project – and she’s very clear in prioritizing for the team.” By being specific you’re praising the person’s skill; direct general gushing makes people uncomfortable. I try (and unfortunately often fail) to remember do this throughout the year so that it becomes part of the normal work conversation – and general positive feeling and camaraderie.

    1. Nichole

      That’s a great approach. I get uncomfortable when paid a direct compliment at work-even though I appreciate my effort being noticed, I don’t know how (and in the case of a note, if) I should respond. Saying to someone else “Dave’s great about that kind of stuff” as a casual comment is likely to get back to Dave without forcing him to respond. And, as you touched on, being specific keeps it from being suck uppy gushing. I love how you said you try to make it part of everyday work convo, I think I’ll start consciously doing that as well.

    2. class factotum

      I took Father Vieron’s Greek class at Annunciation Orthodox in Memphis. He taught us the phrase, “Our guide is good, isn’t he?” to say within earshot of the guide. Overheard praise seems more authentic, I guess!

  6. Another Anon

    A handwritten “thank you” that offers specific feedback and an explanation of why it made a difference (the same format that managers should use for feedback to subordinates) can work. “Boss, you did X and it really mattered because of Y. Thank you.” If you give an object it can be misconstrued as a bribe, and non-specific feedback (“Boss, you’re terrific!”) can look like sucking up. But specifically calling out a behavior that mattered is feedback. Everybody needs feedback.

  7. Anonymous

    I think the “overheard praise” or a word at right time/place would be the way to go in general.
    And when you wish him for holidays – say how much of a gift it is/how grateful you are to be working for him. Say it matter of fact & change subject/walk away …so no chance of him feeling uncomfortable !!!

  8. Wayne Schofield

    It sounds like you are giving your manager the best gift he can get and that is a caring worker who appreciates what he does.

    As far as a “tight hug”…mmmm, not so much. If a pen made him uneasy a tight hug or a kiss on the cheek is probably too much. Go for the chest thump, high five, good job pat on the butt, that outta work! :)

  9. xxx

    Can any one help me how to say thanks to my manager for giving good support and choosing me in this project

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