An Attitude of Gratitude Makes You a Better Leader

Enjoy the little things, because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.

That may sound like a line from a syrupy greeting card. But it turns out to be an important ingredient in workplace issues like engagement, wellbeing, productivity, and even profit.

Star Dargin knows a bit about the rough-and-tumble of competitive business. Earlier in her career, she led hundreds of professionals in producing a bestselling software product that generated more than $500 million in annual revenue.

Then she left engineering to become a leadership coach.

Dramatic career shift? She doesn’t think so. In fact, she points out, both engineering and leadership coaching focus on making intangibles tangible.

Over the past two decades, Star has worked with hundreds of clients including high-tech firms and NASA. Her emphasis today is on gratitude.

Yes, gratitude.

As a conscious practitioner of gratitude, Star has done extensive research showing gratitude’s considerable benefits beyond the obvious “feel good” factor. She shares many of her discoveries in Leading With Gratitude: 21st Century Solutions to Boost Engagement and Innovation. Her suggestions for personal and workplace behavior make good sense.

And, yes, they can brighten your day.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Many people intuitively understand that gratitude is a key to happiness and good relationships. What’s the science supporting gratitude’s role in effective leadership?

Star Dargin: The study of leadership is as old as humans, but only recently is the business world recognizing the value of gratitude within it. It’s difficult to quantify the relationship between leadership and gratitude because there are hundreds of definitions of leadership—and because effective leadership changes over time and cultures. It’s always evolving.

There are many leadership studies that recognize gratitude as a trait of successful leaders, albeit sometimes disguised as appreciation. Brené Brown is my favorite scientist who has done research on effective leadership.

In earlier works, Brown says, the definition of leadership intersects with the definition of vulnerability because leadership is the ability to flourish in a state of flux, to manage people through uncertainty.  Brown adds that, through her studies, she has found that the quickest way to become more vulnerable is to have a strong gratitude muscle, making this trait foundational for effective leadership.

Gratitude is a positive in the workforce in many different ways. Current science shows that gratitude improves our personal and social lives, health, and wellbeing. People who are grateful live longer, heal faster, have less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts. For instance, research has found that waitresses who are authentically appreciative get larger tips and board game players who are shown gratitude win more often because they take more risks. You can start to connect these types of gratitude studies to the development of more effective leadership skills.

Duncan: The notion of gratitude seems to be ingrained in many of the words found in leadership literature—words like engagement, celebration, recognition, and appreciation. What are the advantages of using the word gratitude explicitly in discussing leadership practices?

Star Dargin

Dargin: It’s very true that gratitude is ingrained in many leadership practices today, often by using different terms. In fact, I’ve pulled over 50 books on leadership off my shelves and, in all of them, words such as appreciation, recognition, positivity, and thankfulness appear. Yet, these are all flavors of gratitude without being gratitude themselves. What do I mean?

Engagement has become the gold standard because, when an engaged employee feels appreciated, it can be measured and tied to return on investment, or ROI.  While that makes it an important and complicated word related to gratitude, it is still not gratitude since an employee can be engaged without having gratitude.

Celebration and recognition are similar in that they are ways a leader can express gratitude, but are not gratitude itself. Plus, not every individual gives or wants to receive gratitude the same way. For example, calling out an individual accomplishment publicly can be highly motivating for some and painful for others. This makes learning the various way of giving and receiving gratitude important in the workplace.

Duncan: What about a simple thank you?

Dargin: Saying thank you is certainly another option, but not all thank yous express gratitude.

For example, I’ve identified three types of thank yous. The first is cultural, learned, and ingrained in many of us since birth. In the U.S., for instance, this type occurs when we thank someone who gives us a gift, even if we dislike it. My German friend even complains that when she goes back home, she has to remember to stop saying thank you so much.

The second type of thank you expects reciprocity. In other words, you give it to get something in return.  An example is bringing food to an optional meeting in exchange for attendance.

The last type of thank you is the only one that actually expresses gratitude. You are truly grateful and say thank you consciously and authentically, with nothing expected in return.

In essence, explicitly using the word gratitude in an authentic way cuts through the heaviness of other gratitude-encompassing words like engagement. It is simple and comes from the heart, so why not say, “I’m grateful” instead of using these other words?

Duncan: How does gratitude manifest itself in the observable behavior of an effective leader?

Dargin: Leaders operating from gratitude are more engaged and innovative. Rather than blaming or becoming defensive, fearful, or avoiding, they listen better and are more open and accepting. Their behavior also becomes one of natural curiosity, making them generally more creative in their collaborative problem-solving efforts. The bottom line is improved when leaders are most productive. This happens when leaders are creative and engaged. Of course, productivity leads to more gratitude, which creates a reinforcing cycle of positivity.

As an example, one of my coaching clients was a brilliant and talented technical director at a large international company. However, one of the biggest challenges he faced was working with a CIO who had a different personality type than his. He believed the CIO was belittling and undermining him. This difference meant that he didn’t feel gratitude, so he avoided the CIO and even considered leaving the company.

Through some tough coaching sessions, we were able to shift my client to a place of gratitude, a place where he could see a few things to be grateful for about the CIO and the situation. As a result, he has become more innovative and started finding ways to interact with the CIO. It didn’t happen overnight, but my client is fully engaged at the company and is no longer thinking about leaving.

Additionally, after teaching communication classes for decades, I noticed that no matter what technique was applied, unless you came at it with a positive mindset, it didn’t work as well. Starting from a place of gratitude always seems to improve communication, regardless of which technique is used.

Duncan:How can an organization make gratitude a more central part of its culture—and what are the benefits?

Dargin: The first step is to commit to gratitude, either through a corporation or team vision or values statement. Next, create and institutionalize strategies that support gratitude. There are hundreds of fun and interesting ways to bring more gratitude into a company.

One example is Kronos, a privately-held workforce management company that I work closely with. Kronos CEO Aron Ain says, “I wanted Kronos to be ‘nice’ to people—which of course we did—but we did it because I was convinced that focusing on people and culture was the soundest business strategy.”

In his book, WorkInspired, Ain outlines six techniques for how Kronos created a culture of thank you. It includes both public and private ways to recognize individuals.  One of the techniques mentioned is to create opportunities of “Mass Gratitude” (large events to thank everyone at once). The focus on gratitude seems to be working since they have more than tripled their ROI and are a “Best place to work” according to Glassdoor and have received many other awards.

Duncan:You use something you call the GLAD Model in your coaching. What does that involve?

Dargin: The GLAD Model is something I created around Pollyanna, a fictional heroine who, using something called “the Glad Game,” turned a cold and standoffish town in New Hampshire into a friendly and welcoming place. Essentially, this game involved looking for the positive in everything, no matter how bleak the reality or dire the circumstances.

The GLAD Model has four quadrants: G for Gratitude, L for Lessons, A for Analysis, and D for Doing. Using this tool, a leader can work through challenging, complex, and difficult situations with a better chance of engaging the team and achieving more innovative results.

This model can also easily be integrated into existing methodologies, such as project management tools. It works by incorporating and shifting to gratitude before Doing, or taking action. In fact, it was the tool I used when coaching the technical director mentioned previously.

While most companies are comfortable analyzing and executing, gratitude is rarely integrated into their business practices. The GLAD tool makes gratitude a deliberate practice and be used by both individuals and teams.

Duncan:In the absence of a personality bypass operation (a surgery that’s gratefully not available), how can an ungrateful leader become grateful?

Dargin: Here’s the good news—you don’t have to be a naturally grateful person. Gratitude is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice.

However, this works only if you’re motivated and create an effective and consistent practice that’s customized for you. For instance, writing in a gratitude journal in the morning and evening works for some people. Others need visual cues, physical movement, or physical reminders to practice gratitude. One woman I know keeps three small stones in her pockets and touches them to remember to be grateful.

Based on science, I’ve identified five attributes used to measure (and increase) gratitude. For example, one attribute is environment: your office, your home, the way in which you commute, etc. Adding gratitude in each of these areas by recognizing certain objects or people you’re grateful for will strengthen your gratitude muscle.

Duncan: The philosopher Cicero is credited with saying that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” In what ways does gratitude foster other personal virtues and behaviors?

Dargin: Gratitude lives in the positive side of the brain with joy, happiness, optimism, trust, and mindfulness. The opposite side is the negative, where you’ll find survival mode with fight, flight, or freeze. That’s also the side where blame, anger, hatred, and fear live.

Once you’re in a positive state, all the other positive emotions are more readily available and accessible. It’s like a river and its current. Gratitude and mindfulness push you into the positive current and keep you there. The more grateful and mindful you are, the harder it is to go against the current into the negative, and the more fully the other positive things are experienced.

I’ve asked experts on meditation about the relationship between gratitude and mindfulness and they’ve all replied similarly. When you’re mindful, you’re grateful. And when you’re grateful, you’re more mindful.

For some, me included, being mindful isn’t easy and meditation is hard. Gratitude helps bridge that gap. I also find that in many work situations it’s easier to practice gratitude than meditation.

For more conversations that can help you work smarter, get a copy of LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career and Life Advice from Today’s Top Thought Leaders.

 

Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan