Unlocking the Leadership Gratitude Paradox: Reasons Why Showing Appreciation Can Backfire

Tosca Killoran (EdD)
4 min readSep 7, 2023

Recent shifts in the education industry, including a surge in the number of international schools, a growing presence of IB-accredited institutions, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, have resulted in an increased frequency of teachers moving between schools in search of the right fit.

According to ISC Research data from January 2023, the employment of full-time teachers within the global international schools has increased by 13% in just five years (ISC 2023).

With this shift, educational leaders must find creative ways to retain teachers, enhance performance, and boost morale. A million articles, tweets, or teacher TikTok posts suggest that showing gratitude to staff through affirmations, snacks, or coffee vouchers may be cost-effective but will fail to improve teacher performance and enthusiasm for their work. Often, these gestures are viewed as tokenistic, disingenuous, and condescending.

Image from Teacher Misery

A while back, I was in a meeting where a Leader expressed appreciation for a team’s outstanding performance. It was a moment of acknowledgment and gratitude. Another Leader, in response, suggested sending a heartfelt thank-you email to recognize the team’s hard work. The email was promptly dispatched.

My initial reaction? It was a nice gesture. Little did I know that the next day would bring an unexpected twist. A team member entered my office, brimming with frustration. “That email from my Leader was incredibly insincere; I mean, copying everyone on the team? It came across as condescending. I cannot believe we were treated this way.”

The team members’ strong reaction took me aback. I knew that the Leader authentically appreciated the team’s efforts. The situation evidenced that the disconnect between actions and perceptions can remarkably influence our interactions and relationships. Despite the Leader's genuine gratitude for the team’s work, the thank-you email triggered an unexpected negative perception.

This phenomenon underscores the importance of adequate relational capacity in educational leaders. Relational capacity, born from the principles of servant leadership, thrives when we prioritize the needs of others and actively support their progress toward their objectives. This capacity evolves through the cultivation of empathy, the facilitation of others’ goals, and an unwavering commitment to attentive listening. By dedicating our time and energy to the wellbeing of others, we enhance our ability to extend our influence beyond the boundaries of formal authority. This, in turn, opens doors to guiding and nurturing their professional development, reinforcing the idea that authentic leadership is grounded in selflessness and genuine care for those we serve.

Without relational capacity, even well-intentioned actions can be misinterpreted when not aligned with our underlying sentiments. It is a reminder that understanding others’ perspectives and articulating our intentions clearly can bridge this gap, fostering trust and avoiding unnecessary conflicts. Mastering this delicate balance becomes invaluable in a world where perception often shapes reality.

Practical Ways to Express Gratitude: School leaders, guided by relational capacities, can effectively demonstrate gratitude by establishing a culture of appreciation. This can be achieved through consistent and normalized expressions of gratitude during casual hallway conversations, weekly updates, sending out Monday morning shout-outs, commending teachers publicly during staff meetings, and even organizing gratitude-focused conferences. These tangible actions help foster a positive and appreciative atmosphere within the school community. When gratitude is the culture, an email giving thanks does not seem like a disingenuous one-off.

At the International School Ho Chi Minh City, the practice of gratitude cards goes beyond leadership, exemplifying a culture of appreciation throughout the school community. These cards, originating from various sources within the school, are placed in a gratitude box and read during staff meetings. This practice underscores a culture of care and recognition that transcends hierarchies, highlighting peer-to-peer appreciation. It reflects the school’s commitment to fostering a culture of gratitude, emphasizing its integral role in its ethos.

ISHCMC Gratitude Cards 2023

Personalization and Specificity: Tailor your gratitude to each teacher’s unique contributions and strengths. Avoid generic compliments and provide specific examples of their achievements and efforts. This means that leaders must have time to get into classrooms and observe the great practice within the school. Recognizing individual accomplishments elevates appreciation to be sincere and meaningful.

Consistent and Timely Feedback: Regularly provide positive and constructive feedback to teachers throughout the school year rather than reserving praise for special occasions. Consistency in acknowledging their work and addressing concerns demonstrates that your appreciation is an ongoing sentiment, not just a superficial gesture.

Active Listening and Collaboration: Create opportunities for open dialogue with teachers to understand their needs, challenges, and professional goals. Actively listen to their input and involve them in decision-making processes. Collaboration and involving teachers in shaping the school’s direction can reinforce their sense of being valued and appreciated.

Relational capacity serves as the foundation for effective education leadership. By personalizing expressions of gratitude, providing consistent feedback, and fostering collaboration, education leaders can build genuine feelings of appreciation within their teaching staff and strengthen the overall school culture.

How do you show gratitude as a leader?



Tosca Killoran (EdD)

#Educator, #Author, #EdTechCoach, #InternationalBaccalaureate, #Equity, #TEDxOrganizer, #GlobalCitizen