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… more on Gratitude

| December 3, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Last week the Tuesday Reading, On Being Grateful,1 focused on showing appreciation and called attention to a quote from Robert Emmons, University of California, Davis psychologist and author: “Feeling gratitude starts off with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them.”2
This led me to suggest four ways that we can each show gratitude:

  1. Observe your life and world from a gratitude mindset, focusing on the good things you have rather than obsessing over the things you don’t have. 
  2. Actively look for opportunities to express gratitude. Research shows that we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have.
  3. Show respect to those around you. Practice the “ten-five rule” — when 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, …
  4. Don’t complain. 

And, then I found a short essay by Heidi Grant, Stop Making Gratitude About You.3 Grant, a social psychologist, is Global Director of Research and Development at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), that suggested there was another point to be made. 
In her essay Grant notes, as I did last week, the importance of practicing gratitude, appreciating the things others do to support you. She also noted that “expressing gratitude to someone who helps you keeps them interested and invested in having a relationship with you over the long haul. It makes their time, effort and inconvenience seem worth it.” She goes on to say that “there is nothing quite like ingratitude to sour an otherwise happy relationship.”
As noted last week, research conducted by Francesca Gino and Adam Grant4 looked at the individuals who helped others and found that if the individual who helps wasn’t thanked for their help, their rates of helping people in the future dropped by half. And, as I noted last week, people who were thanked increased the help that they gave while those who were not thanked offered to help less. Other studies show that 15% of employees never say “Thank you” at work and 35% of those surveyed never have heard their manager say “Thank you.”
In her essay, Heidi Grant also referenced research concerning the impact that the form of the gratitude that was expressed had on the person who helped. Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, and Nicole Hilaire5 at the University of North Carolina have explored the impact of two different types of gratitude expressions — “self-benefit” statements (e.g., “Thank you,” “Thank you, now I can complete my part of the project on time,” …) which focus on the benefit the recipient received or “other-praising” (“Thank you. I really like the way you addressed the problem.” Or, “Thank you. The way you approached the task showed some really clever thinking.” Or, “Thank you. I knew the problem would be a stretch for you when I asked you to take it on. And, you nailed it. Great job.”) where the work of the person who helped is specifically acknowledged.
Note the difference in the gratitude expressions. In the “other-praising” example, the individual who helped was thanked and some meaningful connection was made to the work he or she had done. In contrast, in the “self-benefit” case, the focus was on the person receiving the benefit – “Now I can complete my project.” 
As you might expect, the research done by Algoe and her colleagues demonstrated that the “other-praising” gratitude expressions were more positively received than the “self-benefit” ones. And, unfortunately, if you are like me, the expressions we deliver tend to be the “self-benefit” ones. So, we’re not surprised when Heidi Grant states that “most people get gratitude utterly wrong. More often than not, human beings are a bit egocentric by nature. We tend to talk about ourselves even when we should be thinking and talking about others. So, naturally when we get high-quality help and support, we want to talk about how it made us feel and we assume that’s what our helper wants to hear as well.”
Heidi Grant thinks that this assumption isn’t all that correct. Certainly, our helper wants us to be happy. However, her or his motivation to be helpful is likely tied to a sense of self-worth. She says “We help because we want to be good people, to live up to our goals and values, and, admittedly, to be admired.”
She continues, “Helpers want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for – which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about yourself.”
So, as you go through the coming weeks when you have opportunities to express gratitude, work on formulating what you say in terms that are “other-praising,” that speak to what your helper actually did for you and the importance of that task.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .    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. Jim Bruce, On Being Grateful, Tuesday Reading, November 2019.
  2. Bill Hogue, “Gratitude, an Emotion to Be Expressed in All Seasons,” Tuesday Reading, January 2018.
  3. Heidi Grant, Stop Making Gratitude All About You, Harvard Business Review, June 29, 2016.
  4. Francesca Gino and Adam Grant, The Big Benefits of a Little Thanks, HBR Podcast and Transcript, 2013.
  5. Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, Nicole Hilaire, Putting the “You” in “Thank You”: Examining Other-Praising Behavior as the Active Ingredient in Expressed Gratitude, Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal, June 7, 2016. [Note: This research was done with couples observed expressing gratitude to each other for something their partner had recently done for them. In each instance the individual receiving the benefit rated how happy they felt, how loving they felt toward the partner, and how responsive the other had gratitude-giver had been. The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving – but self-benefit was not. It is believed that the results of this set of experiments are applicable in other situations where individuals help each other.]