Gratitude

By: Jim Bruce
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This week we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, traditionally a day of giving thanks for the harvest (that provides our food) and for the preceding year.  History and tradition suggest that this celebration goes back in the United States at least to a 1621 feast in the Plymouth Colony celebrating a good harvest in the Colony’s first year.  This tradition, with both civil and religious roots, has continued.  Since 1941, the holiday has been celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday of November.

  
The concept of giving thanks and expressing gratitude seems to be timeless.  It is viewed as a prized human inclination permeating religious texts, teachings, and traditions in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths.  Going beyond religion, we find Cicero writing in 54 B.C. in Pro Plancio that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.”  
  
So, what does this have to do with leadership and being a leader?  A lot.  Research has demonstrated that having gratitude as a reference point will shift your mindset. You will see whatever situation you find yourself in, in a way that can lessen panic, strengthen relationships, and reduce stress.  In addition, grateful people are typically happier, more optimistic, and less negative.  And, healthier.  All of these qualities positively impact your leadership and your workplace.  
  
While there are many ways to develop your skill of showing gratitude, here are five that I think are particularly effective:
  
1.  Observe your life and world from a gratitude point-of-view.  You are likely to be amazed at the good things we have come to take for granted.  Sharon Meinick, business psychologist and author of Success Under Stress, suggests that too often we let mental stress deflect our appreciation of what we have.  She mentions three stressors in particular that we need to combat:
     •  doubt – an excessive focus on what we don’t have,
     •  expectation – not meeting expectations imposed by ourselves or others,
     •  choice – with so many choices, we question whether we chose  wisely.
Meinick argues that we combat them by having gratitude for what we have.
  
2.  To help you identify opportunities to express gratitude, keep a “gratitude journal.”  You might make this a part of your daily reflection practice.  Researchers Adam M. Grant, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Francesco Gino, of the Harvard Business School, studied the impact of saying “Thank you” in the workplace.  They found that there was a 50% increase in the amount of additional help offered as a result of showing this simple appreciation!  Surely, each of us can do this.
  
3.  Express your gratitude.  When someone goes “above and beyond,” verbalize your appreciation.  In those "ancient days" when people wrote messages on paper and sent them by mail, one large paper company printed cards with a banner “You Made My Day” and a rainbow logo, and encouraged their staff to acknowledge colleagues who had been helpful with a note.  More recently, a New York state ski resort has a “Snow Angel” program where guests and staff who observed someone performing an “act of kindness” could reward that individual with a translucent card containing an image of a Snow Angel as a token of thanks.  In both cases, these small tokens of appreciation were well received, almost like getting a medal.  Some individuals posted their “You Made My Day” cards and “Snow Angels” above their desks as reminders and encouragement to themselves for the good work they had done. 
  
4.  Show respect to those around you.  Treat others with the same level of courtesy as you expect to receive:  smile, show kindness, exhibit patience, don’t interrupt, and listen.  One health care organization introduced a “ten-five” rule:  If you come within ten feet of another person, acknowledge their presence by making eye contact, nodding, smiling, …  And, if you are within five feet, verbally acknowledge their presence with a word – “hello,” “good morning/afternoon,” “how are you,” …
  
5.  Don’t complain.  When you complain you reinforce a negative state of mind without offering a solution.  Instead, take a few deep breaths and focus on the positive.  Work to see if there is a positive side to the negative event you experienced.  
    
Earlier in this essay, I suggested being grateful, makes you healthier.  Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis and a leading researcher in this field, has found that individuals who have and express gratitude take better care of themselves;  engage in more protective health behaviors;  get more exercise;  eat healthier;  better cope with stress;  are more happy;  and maintain a brighter view of the future.
 
In a Leaders Program Reflection from several years ago, Dan Harber, Director of Technology, at the Riverland Community College, a campus in the Minnesota State College and University System, wrote to express this from a personal point-of-view:
 
"So how does this [showing gratitude] relate to our lives on campus?  Well, we all deal with our staff facing both work-related negative issues like virus attacks, patches that break LDAP’s authentication, and budget concerns, but they are also dealing with loved ones with medical issues, family disruptions, and personal budget issues.  Do we take the time to take a step back, put ourselves in their shoes, and try to help them find the opportunity that is often there to see those challenges from a positive perspective?  Do we express our appreciation to them for the work they do and the impact that makes for our students?  Finding that change in perspective that causes us to ‘see' things through a different lens can make all the difference in the world about our attitude.
 
"Especially as we look towards Thanksgiving this week, one of my best ‘tools' to help with finding that attitude is to search for what I am thankful for within the situation, whether it be that this person is still a part of my life, that people are patient with us as we troubleshoot the situation, etc." 
 
So, you may want do work on your skill and practice in showing gratitude. It will be good for you, the work you do, and for all those around you.
 
Do enjoy your Thanksgiving celebration with your family and friends this week.  No matter our circumstances, we do have much to be thankful for.  And, note the counsel of William Arthur Ward, one of the most quoted writers in the United States:  “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” 
 
.  .  .  .  .     jim
 
 
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
 
 
Today’s Tuesday Reading is drawn from the Thanksgiving week essays of November 25, 2014 and November 24, 2015

 

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