The Gift of Gratitude

A.J. Jacobs wrote Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. Jacobs, like so many of us, enjoys his morning cup of coffee. He set out to thank all of those who help make this small, seemingly simple, pleasure possible. He’s not a naturally warm and fuzzy fellow. He’s more curmudgeon and sour puss. Nonetheless, as he got in to his project, he realized that gratitude can become a never ending journey. His efforts took a year and covers a lot of ground. Once started, the list of those to thank on the journey to Jacobs’ java is huge. What begins at his local coffee shop involving a barista takes him on a lengthy journey. Jacobs travels to visit farmers that grow the beans and visits truckers that transport them as well as those that build the roads upon which the trucks drive. Jacobs writes, “By the time I take a sip, the bean has been on a nine-month-long journey of 2,500 miles across the equator. It has traveled by motorcycles, trucks, boats, vans, pallets, shoulders, and forklifts. It’s been stored in buckets, bags, tubs, and metal containers the size of a small apartment. It’s come down a tree, descended a mountain, docked in ports, navigated customs, been loaded into a warehouse, rattled around on flatbeds.” Our coffee beans have been places, seen things, and experienced things most of us never will.

Something as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee depends on a massive infrastructure that we take for granted. Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing if we look hard enough there’s a never ending list of people for which we can be thankful. Our lives are better because of the contributions of so many. In Leading with Gratitude, authors Gostick and Elton introduce us to Mark Cole, CEO of The Maxwell Companies, who notes that, “I grew up realizing what I have is because of the generosity of others. That created a profound gratitude every day.” Cole expands on the importance of cultivating gratitude in his grandson commenting, “I want him to know that everything we have today comes from a place where there was nothing. That keeps my gratitude going. Much of our comfort is the result of the efforts of others. For that we should be grateful. Our gratitude should inspire a desire to contribute to the common good, not a smug satisfaction that things are perfect just the way they are.

In 2017, Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a commencement address at the University of Houston. From his introductory remarks forward, Schwarzenegger reinforces the idea that we each have an army of others for whom to be thankful. To the students graduating who are celebrating their achievement, Schwarzenegger politely points out that each depended on many for where they sit listening. He makes his point personal stating, “You can call me Arnold. You can call me Schwarzenegger. You can call me the Austrian Oak. You can call me Schwarzy. You can call me Arnie. But don’t ever, ever call me the self-made man.” Schwarzenegger continued, “But this is so important for you to understand. I didn’t make it that far on my own. I mean, to accept that credit or that medal, would discount every single person that has helped me get here today, that gave me advice, that made an effort, that lifted me up when I fell. And it gives the wrong impression that we can do it all alone. None of us can. The whole concept of the self-made man or woman is a myth.” Schwarzenegger goes on to detail a number of people and how they helped him along his journey. From his parents, to sport coaches, to a lifeguard, peers, and many more. He thanks the country in which so much of his success was achieved for affording the opportunities it did to him and does to so many more. Arnold offered, “this is why I tell you, on every step of the way I had help. And the reason why I want you to understand that is because as soon as you understand that you are here because of a lot of help, then you also understand that now is time to help others.” He encourages the students as they celebrate earning their degrees that they turn their focus from their own achievement and make time to not just consider but actively thank those that made their accomplishment possible.

Jordan Peterson echoes Schwarzenegger’s sentiment in a recent newsletter noting, “It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order.” Similarly, Jacobs notes that a driver for his project was “to remind myself that I’m a lucky bastard. To make a concerted effort to acknowledge all the good things I take for granted. To battle my brain’s built-in negative bias, the one that might have helped our Paleo ancestors avoid predators but that often puts me in a miserable mood. Jacobs points out that there’s studies suggesting that expressing gratitude for the good fortune in our lives helps us be more compassionate. Where we feel like part of what we have or enjoy experiencing is the result of the stars aligning we may be more inclined to share our wealth with others.

As Jacobs experiences, consciously thinking about what we can be grateful for has many benefits. Studies suggest practicing gratitude offers health benefits. Lower blood pressure. Increased well-being. Increased optimism. Improved sleep. Motivation to exercise. Better diet decisions. Feeling gratitude can even help people recover from surgeries faster. Benedictine Monk, David Steindle-Rast observes that “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” Gratitude is not just the mother of all virtues, it is the foundation of peace of mind. Gostick and Elton note, “Expressing gratitude also brings a lift to our psyches and even our health. Scientists have found that being grateful is a bulwark against depression, boosts satisfaction with life overall, and even leads to better sleep.” Researchers at UC Berkeley in a 2018 study which reviewed a great amount of research on the subject called gratitude “social glue that fortifies relationships—between friends, family, and romantic partners—and serves as the backbone of human society.”

Gratitude is both an emotion and a behavior. It’s something we feel and something we do. Gratitude as a behavior consists of two elements according to researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. In a 2003 paper, they proposed that gratitude follows two thoughts occurring. First, we recognize that something positive has happened. Then, we determine there was a cause for the good thing. We become grateful for the cause which produced the positive result. Emmons notes, “Grateful living is possible only when we realize that other people and agents do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves. We affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about.” What are some positive results you’ve experienced in the past year or two? Who can you consider thanking as a result of these results?

Gratitude is a gift we can give both ourselves and others. Feeling grateful is medicinal for both the giver and the recipient. Moreover, it’s contagious. Others like being around those that display gratitude. Gratitude and negativity can’t coexist. One precludes the other. This is a power of gratitude in that it’s light casts a shadow on negativity. Gratitude isn’t a feeling limited towards stuff or experiences. It’s something we feel towards people.

We know the personal power of gratitude when we’re a recipient. We’re starved for validation and appreciation. We can hit people’s hearts where it works by showing our appreciation for them. At the heart of what causes many to get up and look elsewhere for employment is a feeling that they’re not being appreciated in their current role. It’s not that they are being treated poorly. They just feel disconnected or taken for granted. Gostick and Elton write, “According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the number one reason people give on third-party exit interviews (those not conducted by their own organization) is they ‘don’t feel appreciated’ by their manager for their specific contributions.” In The Myth of the Garage, authors Dan and Chip Heath write, “This is an economic issue as well as an emotional one: In a survey of 10,000 employees from the 1,000 largest companies, 40% of workers cited ‘lack of recognition’ as a key reason for leaving a job.” Have you ever left a relationship because you didn’t feel appreciated? Have you ever left a job because you didn’t feel recognized or appreciated for your efforts from your supervisor? How would you answer a survey question offered by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, “When you get encouragement, does it help you perform at a higher level?” Would you be surprised that virtually everyone asked this question responds in the affirmative? In several surveys, over 80% of employees agree that they would work harder if their manager expressed gratitude towards their work. A bonus of gratitude is that it inspires additional positive actions.

We’ve all read or been told that workers value being appreciated. Employees want their efforts to be recognized by others. As Gostick and Elton note, “We have never once seen the complaint ‘My boss thanks me way too much. I can’t get anything done around here with all the adulation!’” Nonetheless, as much as we know it and feel it ourselves, it remains an area in which many managers could do better. Gostick and Elton write, “People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else.” Just like Jacobs noted that as individuals some of us are prone to see the darker side of things, so, too, it is with those of us in leadership positions. Gostick and Elton write, “We have a built-in tendency to give more attention to problems and perceived threats than positive things happening around us. … How can managers afford not to spend more time on the lookout for and attending to problems than looking for opportunities to be grateful? It’s a survival thing.” Our negativity bias drives our attention scanning for problems as opposed to being grateful and seeing progress made. Gostick and Elton offer a business leader’s experience quoting, ‘At stressful times, I’m sometimes not conscientious enough to be mindful of all the many, many people who are helping me. So, I’m basically being a jerk,’ he confessed. ‘We need to jolt ourselves out of our self-centeredness. When I am more mindful, more aware, more thankful, our teams are happier and everybody’s more engaged, focused, and productive.’”

On top of managers being more problem-focused in their role, many believe expressing gratitude is a sign of satisfaction. We may believe that by withholding thanks, we’re continuing to apply pressure to promote higher levels of performance. Gostick and Elton object writing, “Pressure like that increases anxiety, and anxiety undermines productivity. A leader who is more grateful amid difficult circumstances can help people cope.” Gratitude in the workplace isn’t just about feeling good. A culture of appreciation has been shown to be associated with positive performance on business metrics. Gostick and Elton write, “You want numbers? JetBlue data shows that for every 10 percent increase in people reporting being recognized, it sees a 3 percent increase in employee retention and a 2 percent increase in engagement.”

In any organization where there’s more than one person, any success achieved is the result of more than one person’s efforts. Our jobs and the organization itself depend on the contributions of many. There’s plenty of thanks to be spread around on any given day as a result. In a speech to Howard University in 2002, lawyer and political activist, Vernon Jordan, noted, “You are where you are today because you stand on somebody’s shoulders. And wherever you are heading, you cannot get there by yourself. If you stand on the shoulders of others, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on your shoulders. It’s the quid pro quo of life. We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.” Thanks, is something we should have locked and loaded ready to shoot back to those who have served in the past as well as to those with whom we’re working with daily.

A friend told me recently of his experience as a manager in a bank years ago. He was a young hot shot and a VP at a bank. He had a core group of about 15 employees for whom he was responsible. He figured he was doing a bang up job with branch financial performance that was doing well until one day a team member approached him to talk about another person. The employee told the manager that he wasn’t thanking his team enough. Defensively, the manager disagreed. He countered that he had just thanked the team for completing a certain project. The employee persisted and noted, yes, the team had been thanked. However, there are several staff that are regularly going above and beyond. Their efforts aren’t recognized. A word of encouragement here and there that applied to specific individuals not related to project outcomes would go far. The employee could sense the confusion in their manager. She continued, spelling out with great detail what the manager should say, when he should say it, and what to provide their colleague as thanks. The young manager had the good sense to both absorb and act on the advice offered. He practiced his lines, arranged to have a modest thank you gift purchased, and delivered both to the team member in the recommended setting. When doing these things, he wasn’t yet convinced that it was worth his while. He mostly accommodated the recommendation out of respect for the colleague making it.

The team member being appreciated was thrilled to be recognized. Her emotions reflected the significance of the manager’s gestures. Her eyes lit up while welling up with tears. She told him later that she had worked at the bank for thirty years and had never been recognized for her personal contributions. It meant the world to her. It was in that moment that the manager had an “aha” moment he has held close to him since. He’s grateful to his colleague for having the courage to prod him and that he learned this lesson early enough in his work career that he’s been able to benefit from it over and over again. He recalls with pleasure the times he’s made a difference to those making a difference by the simple act of recognizing them with appreciation in some form. He has learned over the years that the type of appreciation that is meaningful is personalized. It’s not the same for each of us. Seeing the affect appreciation had on others, this manager began to consciously remind himself to celebrate others more often. What can we do to make expressing gratitude in our work environments more common?

Even if demonstrating gratitude and appreciation for others is something we may struggle to demonstrate, there are some small, straightforward steps we can consider. For example, Hubert Joly, CEO of Bestbuy, offers a perspective to adopt, “What really helped me change as a leader, and learn the importance of gratitude, was to start seeing everyone as my customer—our team is my customer, my board is my customer…my waiter is my customer. Our natural tendency is to treat a customer well.”

Attenuating our focus outward towards our team to see how we can work to appreciate them is a great start. From here, we should be looking for examples of behavior that are inline with both corporate objectives or that reflect corporate values. We’re not just thanking people for putting on a clean shirt at the office, but for actions we want to see repeated. Thanks serves as positive reinforcement for a behavior. Appreciation is received as a reward signal in the recipient’s brain. If the thanks is connected with clear behavior, the behavior is likely to be repeated in the future. Gostick and Elton write, “Showing gratitude is one of the most effective and memorable ways to reinforce leadership’s commitment to values. In order for the values to be installed as day-to-day operating norms, positive reinforcement of actual behaviors is essential by leaders.”

Leaders can’t undertake this function while sitting in their office. You’ve got to put your feet in the field. Yes, this is tough when working remotely. Because it implies additional effort on your part, the gratitude for the appreciation received will be even greater. You’ve got to go where your people are performing in order to catch them doing good things. When you see them doing well, thank them. The timeliness of gratitude relative to the activity both reinforces the behavior and demonstrates that you are paying attention. If you’re not thanking in the moment, take note of the moment and when you do subsequently thank, via a written note or email, for example, detail the time and date of the occurrence in order to connect appreciation with behavior. Outside of looking for behaviors to thank, consider finding ways to help your team. Can you do a favor for members of your team? Can you find a small way to help them in their day? Again, this drives your attention outwards to those around you. Can you introduce them to another team member that may be a resource for them? Can you share a best practice with them related to their role they may not be aware of? Can you provide a useful book recommendation, an article, or short video on a subject that’s relevant to their role? From here, keep track of how often, to whom, when, and how you have offered thanks in a month. Set thanks targets for yourself. Try to strive for ten thanks in a month and build onwards and upwards.

In an episode from the TV show, Billions, the character, Bobby Axelrod, refers to hate “as nature’s infinitely renewable resource.” He’s an intense and competitive character that is constantly in a fight over something. Sure hate and bitterness may offer motivation, but can we consider converting our grrrs into gratitude? If we shift from rage to appreciation, we’re likely to experience nature’s truly infinitely renewable resource. Being grateful is something of which we can’t do too much. It costs nothing but our effort. It’s one of those little things that makes a big difference. It’s available to any of us, any time, on any day. Jonathan Klein, Chairman of Getty Images, as quoted in Leading with Gratitude, “I recognized very early on that the resources we have as leaders are finite. It also struck me that there is one resource that is infinite and makes a huge difference. That is gratitude. It will never run out, costs nothing, and has a major impact.” Investing legend Charles Schwab once said, “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.”

Happy Thanksgiving.