The big impact of small gestures

Getting the little things right – gestures of appreciation and thanksgiving – cultivates trust, shores up support and deepens commitment for people inside and outside an institution.

Perhaps like you, I spend more time in airplanes and in airports than I would like. Of all the unfortunate ways that that industry has changed and become much less focused on customer service and satisfaction, the thing that I miss most from the airline service of my childhood is the hot towel before landing.

You remember? Twenty or 30 minutes before touching down, the flight attendants would distribute hot towels – in coach, no less! – so that you could refresh your face, wipe your hands, and arrive at your destination feeling slightly more human after the journey. Of all the changes to air travel, it is ridiculous to say, that’s what I miss the most. It was a small thing but a gracious touch.

It’s curious, isn’t it, how those little things make a difference, how it’s the small act of kindness that transforms a moment? How a simple gesture lingers in the mind and defines an experience in our memory?

The same is true in our institutional life. Often, as institutional leaders, we have our focus on the big picture, on the grand scale, and that is critical for institutional survival and success. But without attention to the little things, we run the risk of alienating both our constituents and our employees. It’s the little things that, over time, cultivate trust and a willingness to be vulnerable, that shore up support and deepen commitment. It’s getting the little things right that helps us do the big things later.

Two examples might be of help.

My parents would have done just about anything for John Thomas. While he was the president of the university where my father taught when I was a child he clipped any article that happened to mention me in the local paper and sent it to my parents with a note of congratulations. (It helped that I grew up in a small town.) Now, I wasn’t special in this regard. Every morning, before his first meeting, John was at his desk writing handwritten notes to members of the university community and to people around the town. If you go to Boone today, people still talk about John Thomas and his notes. It was a small thing, but it conveyed a big message – “I notice you. I am grateful for you.”

Likewise, in the years since the start of Faith & Leadership, every year on the anniversary of the launch, we have a birthday party (with cake) in the office. No party games, but good party conversation. There are words offering thanks for work done and prayers for a year ahead. It’s a small thing, but it is meaningful. The message is clear, “We notice you. We are grateful for you and the work that you have done.”

These small things make a difference, and in a time in which few people working for faith-based institutions can be compensated sufficiently for the amount of time and passion they give to their work, they matter all the more. (One of the sad parts of contemporary institutional life is that, in many institutions, the intentional graciousness that we offer to people outside our institution we fail to show to those inside it.)

You know, I’m sure somewhere there is an analyst who can tell me precisely how much the airlines are saving by not giving me a hot towel before landing. Frankly, I don’t care. Small things that show care, concern and appreciation are always worth more than their price tags reflect.