Good Decision Makers Always Say Thank You

Jay Leno tells of buying a half gallon of milk at a grocery store. When he got to the checkout stand, he said, “good morning,” to the cashier. She didn’t look up. He asked, “How’s your day going?” Still no response. He gave her two dollars for the milk and the change came rolling out of the coin dispenser. He scooped up the change and said, “Have a good day.” Still nothing. At this point, he’d had enough. “Aren’t you even going to say, Thank you,” he snapped. Finally, the cashier looked up. “It’s on the bottom of the receipt,” she said.

This story always gets a good laugh, because we’ve all been there. But here’s the thing; Jay’s been telling that story since the 1980s. I have had the privilege of getting to know a lot of good decisions makers. Hopefully, you have too. One of the things that has made a lasting impression on me is how unfailingly appreciative these people are. They’ve recognized that if they say thank you, it is generally reciprocated. This plants the seeds for other opportunities.

I say “thanks” for even the smallest gestures. If nothing else, it generally brings a smile to the other person’s face. In some cases, I get a “You’re welcome” in return. Once in a while someone will say, “I really appreciate that. No one seems to say “thank you” anymore.”

I learned a long time ago that if you are appreciative, the other person is more likely to share that feeling of goodwill. I’ve been upgraded on airline flights any number of times, for instance, because I was one of the few passengers treating the gate agent with warmth. That has always bedeviled me. Why would you be gruff to the person who controls your seat assignment and level of service? Yet so many people do.

We are increasingly living in a less-than-civil world. But that doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.  The best decision-makers know this and use it to leverage their relationships and influence. Besides, it just feels good and is what a civil society requires.

When Good Enough is Good Enough

I can become consumed trying to ensure I have done the absolutely best job or made the absolutely best decision. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I know that the details count. I want to be proud of the work I’ve done. As a result, I sometimes find myself going down “rabbit holes” in pursuit of the exact words when I’m writing, the perfect look when I am recording a video, or the absolutely choice finish when I am creating something in my workshop. Sometimes I get so focused on getting it right that I look up and suddenly realize I’ve spent way too much time on an element of the effort that no one else would care about.

Of course, I am not alone in this. I’ve had colleagues tell me it took them three years to write a book because they wanted to get the words just right. As a result, they wrote and re-wrote sections and still weren’t happy when it eventually went to press. There is a place for this kind of exactness, of course. It’s been said that Ernest Hemmingway sometimes struggled for weeks in crafting a single sentence. Fred Astaire rehearsed dance routines until everyone’s feet bled. Top comedians have been known to take months to hone 15 minutes of material. Golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez used to spend hours a day on the putting green.

In those types of performance environments, I applaud their dedication. But outside of this, it is easy to be consumed by details that matter little in the overall outcome. I’ve watched teams spend hours on the details of a proposal rather than on focusing on the relationship with the prospect. I’ve participated on boards where insignificant issues have been allowed to coopt the mission or primary outcome. I suspect you have as well. When we look back on the time and effort put into some of these dalliances, will we even remember what they were about?

One of the mantras I have adopted over time is “Good enough is good enough.” (This is a cousin to the phrase, “Life’s too short.”) Most work does not need to be that precise. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy. It is important to meet the expectations of the supervisor, stakeholder or our own sense of quality and integrity.

But “good enough is good enough.” I’d rather get my project, article, product out to the people it can help rather than delaying endlessly until it is my idea of perfect. I have to balance the time and effort expended with a reasonable outcome. There will always be imperfections. This past summer, for instance, I replaced the stairwell of the deck on our house. Did I make a few minor mistakes? Yes. Do I notice them when climbing those stairs? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rebuild those steps this summer to correct errors no one else will notice. Good enough is good enough.

When I begin to realize I am hyper-focusing on the minutiae, I ask myself three questions.

Number one, “What is an acceptable outcome for this effort?” Once again, that does not mean I don’t care if I do my best work. It’s just that there are only 24 hours in each day and only so much energy. Am I making the most of it? Number two, “What are the stakeholders expecting?” This past weekend, I painted some interior window trim. Truth is I did not paint the tops of the trim because no one is going to see them. Visitors to my home are not going to climb up to see if I did so. If I stumble over my words once or twice in a 15-minute video is anyone going to notice or care? Number three, “Is what I’ve accomplished good enough?” In other words, can I live with the present result? Five years ago, I published a book that won three awards. Are there thoughts in that book I’d like to go back and refine? Sure. But the book has already won three awards, so it must be good enough.

Have I made my point perfectly here? Probably not. But I hope I have given those of you who suffer from this time-consuming pursuit of perfection permission to know when good enough is good enough and make the decision to move on.