Provision #725: Gratitude Matters

Laser Provision

I have written so often about the importance of gratitude that I hope you will bear with me as I cover the topic again. There is probably no more important human emotion than gratitude when it comes to human well being. The health benefits of gratitude are legion. Now, however, in this Provision, I want to connect the dots between gratitude and leadership. Grateful leaders are effective leaders because appreciation is contagious. It binds people together, motivates cooperation, and unleashes creativity. If that doesn’t sound like the work of leadership, I don’t know what is. So read on, and be grateful.

LifeTrek Provision

It’s hard not to be grateful when people are going out of their way to be nice to us. That has certainly been the case during our time here in Israel. One person after another has offered to take us places, to show us around, to navigate the language, to cook us meals or to take us out to eat, to introduce us to people who might be interested in our work, and to otherwise do thoughtful things for us. In circumstances such as these, “Thank you!” or “Todah!” is the most natural of human responses.

Unfortunately, it is also the most perfunctory. We all too often say “Thank you!” and move on, without fully appreciating the moment or savoring it later. Such mindless gratitude does not have the same value and carry the same weight as mindful gratitude. And mindful gratitude is an important key to effective leadership.

In her excellent book Counterclockwise, psychologist Ellen Langer boils down mindfulness to noticing things with an openness to possibility. Most of the time, we are mindless: we don’t notice things. We go through the motions of our day as if on autopilot. When that happens, it’s hard to cultivate any gratitude at all, let alone the full experience of being grateful.

Most of the rest of the time, when we do notice things, we are not open to possibility. Instead of appreciating their positive value and of how that value might be enhanced, we position ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. We notice things and criticize them. We see what’s wrong and we fail to see how to make things better. Instead of being grateful, we become grumpy.

That is how many people go through life. They oscillate between being unaware and unappreciative, both of which take a big toll on health and well-being. Stress, depression, overwhelm, and other negative emotions are integrally related to this oscillating madness. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the things I most enjoy about travel, especially international travel, is the way in which it automatically increases awareness and appreciation. It’s hard to survive in a mindless state when everything is so unfamiliar. The language is different, the stores are different, the roads are different, the faces are different. Even the toilets are different! Mindfulness becomes a survival skill, at least until a new routine is established. Being oblivious and grumpy is not a smart way to travel.

It’s also not a smart way to lead. Yet leaders are famous for both. Oblivious and grumpy are the stuff ofDilbert cartoons with their daily, satirical caricatures of the pointy-haired boss. He either doesn’t know what’s going on or he walks around with a judgmental, off-putting attitude. One would hope that real bosses are not that stupid, but the widespread popularity of the comic strip, including several appearances on the cover of Fortune magazine, suggests otherwise.

The antidote to mindless leadership is gratitude. Gratitude requires both awareness and appreciation, qualities that go a long way in any workplace or human encounter. People like to be recognized and valued both for who they are and for what they do. The energy of gratitude serves, ironically, as both a lubricant and a glue. It makes things run more smoothly and it makes people feel more connected.

Best of all, gratitude is good for both the giver and the receiver. The more we express gratitude, the happier and higher-functioning we will be. The same goes for those who receive gratitude. Gratitude is a virtuous cycle; it is a self-reinforcing spiral dynamic. If we want to improve not only our own well-being but also the well-being of the schools and organizations we lead, then gratitude is an important energy to bring into the mix.

How do we do that? Through intention and practice. First, we have to want to express gratitude; then we have to follow through in thought, word, and deed. Intention without practice is magical thinking; practice without intention is mechanical functioning. Intention with practice is the key to masterful living and masterful leadership.

Positive psychology has researched and developed many ways for cultivating the intention and practice of gratitude. Documenting the many benefits of gratitude is certainly part of the equation. Who would not want to do something that so clearly and consistently improves both personal well-being and leadership effectiveness? Gratitude is better than drugs on both scores.

Intention alone, however, is not enough. It’s never enough. We must set our intention and then walk the talk. In the case of gratitude, positive psychology has identified several practices that can raise our Gratitude Quotient and keep it high over time.

  1. The Gratitude Journal. In this practice, people write down what they are grateful for at the end of each day. Although some people prefer to engage in longer, reflective writing, the method that has been most often researched by positive psychologists has been a simple list of three good things that happened over the course of each day. Hunting for the good stuff can be challenging when times are tough, but it’s never impossible to find something worth celebrating.

    We can even do that for each other. My wife and I sometimes voice our gratitudes out loud, before we go to sleep at night. Now I have taken to something similar with my mother. Right now she is recovering from a broken leg. It was a bad break that will take many months to heal, including lots of therapy and convalescent care. Living in an institution with severe mobility issues is not easy. Depression and grumpiness are far more predictable than contentment and gratitude. But that is not the end of the story.

    On Friday evening I asked my mother, “What are you grateful for right now? What can you celebrate about today?” After a slight pause, my mother proffered the name of one of her caregivers, “Debbie!” “What do you like about Debbie?” I asked. “She’s kind, strong, and patient. I really like and trust the way she helps me get around.” After a little conversation about Debbie, my mother was obviously feeling better. Hunting for the good stuff made all the difference in the world. It proved, at least for that moment, to be transformational.

  2. The Gratitude Letter. Whereas the gratitude journal can be a daily practice, the gratitude letter is more of an occasional practice (although I know people who maintain a discipline of writing one gratitude letter per week). The practice is simple: pick someone who has done something nice for you and write them a thank you note. Do it the old-fashioned way: in your own handwriting. Although gratitude text messages and e-cards are not without merit, the gratitude letter is a little longer and more heartfelt expression of appreciation.

    The key is to be specific. A gratitude letter is not a general expression of how much you like or love someone. It is not the same thing as a compliment, telling someone how great they are. A gratitude letter is rather an expression of how someone uniquely contributed to your performance, learning, or well-being at a particular point in time. Such letters describe what the other person did, how that made us feel, what needs were met, and how much we appreciated their contribution.

    When such letters are delivered and read in person, for what is known as a gratitude visit, they can create not only a tender but also a transformational space between two people. Even if they are sent through the mail, their effect can be great. I even know people who have written such letters to deceased friends and family, perhaps burning the letter afterwards to deliver them as the smoke rises to the winds.

    My daughter-in-law, Michelle, is one of my role models when it comes to gratitude letters. She is always most thoughtful about sending letters of appreciation, and she even manages to rope my son into the process. When I spent a week with them at the end of April to help fix up their new old home, with my wife working on two weekends to help with the clean up and painting, we received a very nice gratitude letter the following week. Such letters always get filed away for me to read again, when the spirit moves. Savoring and expressing gratitude feels great.

  3. The Gratitude Day. So why not take a day to do that all the time? The final practice, a gratitude day, attempts to do just that. Although it’s a great practice for leaders, anyone can choose to pick a day during which time we are going to be especially mindful of and active in the expression of gratitude. With each and every person we meet, we find something to acknowledge, celebrate, and affirm.

    This can be as simple as noticing something they are wearing to as nuanced as noticing something they are saying and doing, even when we disagree. This is sometimes referred to as “Yes, And” listening. We hear what someone says, we reflect what we heard with respect, even if we disagree, and then we build on (rather than argue with or contradict) their ideas. “Yes, And” rather than “No, But” can make a huge difference in how our conversations go and what they generate.

    The nice thing about a gratitude day is that you can do this all on your own, without announcing the project to anyone. Think of it as your own private research project. See what happens to you. See how people react. See what gets gets done. See what changes you notice. When you go through the day expressing gratitude and appreciation to each person you meet and interact with, all manner things shift and become possible. It can truly be an amazing and transformational experience.

What’s fascinating about the research into gratitude is the lingering effects of these simple exercises. Even one entry into a gratitude journal, even one gratitude letter or visit, and even one gratitude day still has demonstrable effects one month later on well-being and effectiveness. That’s amazing and very good news when it comes to leadership. Although it is certainly valuable to do these things more often than once a month, leaders do not have to become gratitude monks • with 24/7 practices • in order to experience the gratitude effect. We just have to do them once in a while.

And it’s always possible to find something to celebrate. That is a fundamental premise of appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based approach to transformational change that we have incorporated into our coaching model. In every situation, no matter how bleak, there is always something that works. This may be the silver lining around the storm cloud or it may be a genuine accomplishment, albeit in a different sense or to a different degree than we had hoped for.

Great leaders know the importance of noticing and appreciating these things. The positive energy and emotion that get produced when gratitude is expressed, especially when gratitude is least expected, hold the key to positive actions and outcomes. Criticizing people for what’s wrong, for what they are not doing right, and for the ways they have disappointed us, is not an effective approach in leadership or life. To quote the old adage: “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Gratitude is the honey that draws people forward. By finding things to appreciate in the present moment, great leaders cultivate positive anticipation of future moments. The simple act of expressing gratitude increases awareness, builds positive expectations, promotes conscious choice, unleashes creativity, and makes success more likely. That certainly sounds like the work of leadership to me.

Coaching Inquiries: How often do you express gratitude? What would it take for you to express gratitude more frequently? What about more authentically? Which of the three gratitude exercise might you be able to practice in the next week? Why not write out your plan for that right now?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thanks very much for this stimulating provision on how Graciousness Matters. I’ve been reflecting on it all day. Graciousness…what a concept! As you know, I have made growth of emotional intelligence a priority in my life for 2011 and beyond, but it’s not easy. It’s one thing to recognize the importance of letting go of impatience, of caring about the feelings of others, and of embracing graciousness in everyday life. But it’s something else altogether to actually make patience a habit, to routinely pay attention to the needs of others and to become a person marked by grace in every stressful situation.

I for one want nothing more than to be an emotionally intelligent channel of cosmic grace, but I am at a loss in knowing how to get there, except by the tiniest baby steps — steps that seem to be going backwards at times of frustration and stress. Have you thought about writing a provision or two on exactly how to grow one’s emotional intelligence, overcoming all the unintelligent patterns of thought and behavior that might hold one back? I hope you enjoy every minute of your journey to Israel. (Ed. Note: The gratitude exercises in today’s Provision are great places to start! Thanks for the suggestion.)   

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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