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Learn to Express Your Gratitude

| November 20, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Day after tomorrow, the fourth Thursday of November, will be celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the United States.
A day set apart for giving thanks in the United States, has been celebrated most years since the first colonization of our country. Beginning in 1941, Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Times of thanksgiving in what is now known as the United States were first observed by the French and Spaniards in the 16th century. Settlers, in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia, celebrated thanksgiving as early as 1607. An early charter associated with the settlers in Virginia required “that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Thanksgiving celebrations can also be traced back to a 1621 harvest feast at the Plimoth [1621 spelling] Plantation where the settlers had a successful growing season. Autumn or early winter feasts continued there sporadically in later years, first as an impromptu religious observance and later as a civil tradition.
However, the concept of giving thanks and expressing gratitude seems to be timeless. It is seen as an important human instinct in the writings, teachings, and traditions of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Bana’i and other faiths. In secular writing, we find Cicero writing in 54 BCE in Pro Plancio that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.”
Let’s focus on that word gratitude.  In his guest Tuesday Reading1 this past January, Bill Hogue, executive coach with the MOR Leadership Programs, quotes Robert Emmons, University of California, Davis psychologist and author on gratitude:  “Feeling gratitude starts with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them.”2 
Note the emphasis on both what we receive and the cost to the giver. Too often our focus is all on what we receive. In his essay, Bill told the story of his grandmother, who dropped out of school and did piece work in a New Hampshire shoe factory. She sacrificially gave him a two-dollar bill every birthday. And, I think of my subsistence farmer grandfather in Shepherd, Texas, who rarely had any money but would give me a penny or a nickel from time to time. I think of parents who labor in their jobs to send their children to college. And, members of our staffs who often must sacrifice time with families to complete their assigned work on time. The point I wish to make is that gratitude must be seen in terms of both the gift and the cost of that gift to the giver.
So, what does gratitude have to do with leadership and being a leader?  A lot. Research has demonstrated that if you take gratitude as one of your reference points, it will shift your mindset. A gratitude mindset can lessen panic, envy, anxiety, stress, and depression, and strengthen relationships, increase happiness and optimism, and reduce stress and negativity. And, you will be healthier. All of these qualities positively impact your life, your leadership and your workplace.  
While there are many ways to develop your skill of showing gratitude, here are four that I think are particularly effective:
1.  Observe your life and world from a gratitude mindset.  You are likely to be amazed at the good things we have come to take for granted.  Sharon Melnick,3 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 – an excessive focus (1) on what we don’t have, (2) on not meeting expectations imposed by ourselves and (3) on the question whether we choose wisely. Melnick argues that we combat these stressors by having gratitude for what we do have.
2.  Actively look for opportunities to express gratitude. Researchers Francesca Gino, of the Harvard Business School, and Adam M. Grant, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied4 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. Unfortunately, one of their studies showed that 15% of us never say “Thank you” at work, and 35% of those surveyed had never heard their managers say thank you.
Bill Hogue, in his Tuesday Reading1 earlier this year, noted that “Gratitude is a practice, and getting started is simple.  Make a commitment right now that you will express gratitude three times today. Put three quarters [or some other object, such as three small smooth stones, that will remind you of your commitment] in your left front pocket.  Your objective is to empty your pocket by the end of the day.  Move a quarter to your right pocket each time you express your thanks to someone for something they’ve done while silently acknowledging what it cost them to do it.  Pretty easy.  And the dividends to you and others will far outweigh your investment.”
Other approaches to verbalize your appreciation work as well. 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. Some individuals posted their “You Made My Day” cards above their desks as reminders and encouragement to themselves for the good work they had done. Although archaic, a handwritten note of appreciation, personally delivered to a person’s desk, will still be much appreciated and long remembered. And, if that’s too archaic you can settle for an email, or a tweet, or a post on Facebook.
3.  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,” … Doing this resulted in significant improvements in morale and personal interactions.
4.  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.  
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.
And, 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 wise 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.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Bill Hogue, “Gratitude, an Emotion to Be Expressed in All Seasons,” Tuesday Reading, January 2018.
  2. Clare Ansberry, “Beyond Thankful: Cultivating a Life of Gratitude,” Turning Points, Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2017.
  3. Sharon Melnick, Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On, AMACON, 2013.
  4. Francesca Gino and Adam Grant, The Big Benefits of a Little Thanks, HBR Podcast and Transcript, 2013.