One might have thought that the expression of gratitude was for the benefit of the recipient, to feel acknowledged and affirmed in their generous act: possibly so. However the experience of gratitude also brings great benefit to the donor, and some of those benefits can be seen to act as an inoculation against the dangerous seductions of privilege, power and position.
Gratitude is an acknowledgement that we have received something of benefit from others. The grateful person reacts to the goodness of others in a benevolent and receptive fashion. Classically it was considered to be the greatest of the virtues. However, like all virtues, it needs to be cultivated. Resentment at the good fortune of others and a sense of personal entitlement seem to come more easily to us. So why bother to cultivate a sense of gratitude? What are the benefits? And why might it be especially beneficial to leaders to experience gratitude?
1. Gratitude enhances resilience and coping abilities
Counting one’s blessings in time of stress is a well-known coping mechanism. Such behaviour works by helping to facilitate a switch of attention from the negative and depressing in any situation to the positive and encouraging. It helps people switch into a more positive mental state, which in turn makes it more likely they will be able to adopt a pro-active adaptive coping mode following some set-back.
Specifically feeling gratitude makes it more likely that someone will be able to seek social support from others and that they will be able to positively reframe the situation (finding the silver linings). Gratitude has been found to be a key component of promoting post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic stress. And it plays a key part in determining transplant surgery post-operative quality of life. Experiencing gratitude was a key component affecting resilience and post-trauma coping for American students in the aftermath of the shock and horror of 9/11. All in all the evidence is fairly strong that the experience of gratitude promotes adaptive coping and personal growth following setbacks or trauma.
Leadership can be a stressful process: a degree of resilience is a requisite for the job these days. Cultivating a sense of gratitude for the good things going on and the benefits others bring will promote greater resilience, better coping, better mental and physical health and personal growth and renewal.
2. Gratitude builds and strengthens relationships
Feeling grateful encourages people to consider ways to reciprocate the goodness or kindness they have received. Such reciprocal behaviour builds social bonds, creating a mutually reinforcing positive cycle of expression and acknowledgement of interdependency. It enhances trust. In addition grateful people are attractive to others; being found to be extraverted, agreeable, empathic, emotionally stable, forgiving, trusting and generous. Gratitude is associated with empathy, forgiveness and a willingness to help others. These things inspire loyalty and commitment amongst other things. Gratitude is a vital interpersonal emotion, the absence of which undermines social harmony.
Leaders can’t do it on their own whatever the myth of hero leadership might suggest. Healthy relationships are key to organizational success. Leaders get things done through other people. Leaders need enthusiastic, committed, loyal and responsive team members and followers. Being grateful, recognising other’s benevolence, and reciprocating in kind help to build these essential social bonds and enhance organizational social capital.
3. Gratitude helps develop flourishing organizations
Cameron discovered that an emphasis on, and prevalence of, virtuous behaviour is a defining feature of flourishing organizations and positive leadership. Gratitude acts to motivate virtuous behaviour, that is, action taken to benefit others. Gratitude acts as a benefit detector making it more likely that opportunities to express appreciation and gratefulness will be spotted. Expressing gratitude reinforces pro-social behaviour while feeling grateful motivates pro-social behaviour. In this way gratitude is a motivating and energising emotion, not just a passive pleasant feeling. The benefits of gratitude can be far reaching. Acts of gratitude can stimulate virtuous circles of generous and grateful behaviour as the recipient of benefit is inclined to pass it on i.e. to do someone else a favour.
Leadership is all about cultivating and creating productive working environments. Virtuous circles of self re-enforcing beneficial behaviour that smooth organizational life and facilitate the effective transfer of skills and resources through acts of helping, the exercise of patience and forgiveness, and the expression of gratitude help to increase organizational capability without increasing hard cost.
4. Gratitude increases goal attainment
Interestingly gratitude appears to enhance goal achievement. Often the assumption is that a state of gratitude might induce passivity and complacency. However the limited research evidence available suggests that gratitude enhances effortful goal striving. One would imagine this is a product of the well-researched benefits of positive emotions in general: greater creativity, sociality, tenacity and so on.
Leadership is, amongst other things, about goal attainment. It seems that cultivating an attitude of gratitude in the process of goal striving, rather than giving into emotions of frustration and blame, aids goal achievement.
5. Gratitude increases personal wellbeing
Gratitude acts as a vaccination against envy. Envy is a negative emotional state characterized by resentment, a sense of inferiority, longing and frustration. It creates unhappiness and mental distress. Gratitude directs attention away from material goods more towards social goods. Grateful people appreciate positive qualities in others and are able to feel happy over their good fortune. They are also less likely to compare themselves unfavourably with people of a higher status. By encouraging a focus on the positive and beneficial in the present moment, gratitude also seems to protect against the damaging effects of regret.
Grateful people are concerned with the wellbeing of others, both in particular and in general. This focus helps them fulfil the basic needs for personal growth i.e. relationships and community. They are less likely to define success in material terms. Materialism is damaging to subjective wellbeing and it is correlated with many things unhelpful to leadership such as less relatedness, less autonomy, and less competence.
Leaders often compete in a world where advancement and success are measured by the trappings of material possession: salary, office space, houses and cars. Given our straitened times and the shift in many sectors from a sense of abundance to one of scarcity – less promotion, less bonus payments, less corporate benefits – cultivating increased gratitude may help inoculate against the corrosive emotions of entitlement, resentment and envy.
Gratitude is the mindful awareness of benefits in one’s life. It seems that counting one’s blessings on a regular basis really does help with overcoming the vicissitudes of life and with maintaining optimal personal functioning. For those in leadership positions the benefits can expand to increase organizational functioning. Feeling gratitude doesn’t come easily to many of us, but the evidence is mounting that the benefits it brings are worth the effort it takes to cultivate a grateful outlook on things.
Emmons R and Mishra A (2011) ‘Why gratitude enhances wellbeing: what we know, what we need to know’, in Sheldon K, Kashdan T, Steger M (eds) Designing positive Psychology.
More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.
See more about Positive Emotions in the Knowledge Warehouse.
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