Episode 63 - The Power of Gratitude at Work
Being grateful has a host of benefits for individuals and teams. In this episode we explore three practical ways to build gratitude at work.
Hello and welcome to episode 63 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore the power of gratitude for ourselves and for those we lead.
As human beings we have a natural tendency to become caught up with the negatives and challenges in life. Researchers Gilovich and Davidai describe this as the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry - what they characterise as a tendency to focus far more on barriers than on blessings. This can lead to a sense of unfairness - a perception that we have it harder than most other people. It also leads us to underestimate the benefits we have received that have contributed to positive outcomes in our lives. This tendency runs counter to a sense of gratitude. It’s very difficult to feel grateful at the same time as feeling like you’ve had it tougher than most people. But that’s exactly why gratitude can be so helpful - we can use gratitude to rebalance the asymmetry.
But first, what is gratitude? It’s a commonly used word, but can be hard to define. Researchers categorise gratitude as a both a trait and an emotion or state. We all experience the emotion of gratitude at different points during our day, but fewer of us have an ongoing grateful outlook on life as a trait. There is even an ongoing debate as to whether gratitude should be considered a personality trait.
What we do know is that gratitude has both a genetic and environmental component - it appears to be wired into us and emerges quite early in our lives. And research also demonstrates that we can increase our gratitude, both in our daily mood, and also ongoing.
For the individual the benefits of gratitude range from improved physical and mental health, elevated mood and happiness, increased life satisfaction, and reduced burnout. By way of example, patients recovering from heart failure who completed a gratitude journal had reduced signs of inflammation after an 8 week period. Other research showed people reported better and longer sleep, and better overall physical health by increasing their practice of gratitude.
For groups and organisations, research has demonstrated that gratitude can increase generosity and kindness, while helping to build stronger relationships and improving work climate. Gratitude is like the glue for society that binds people together. If someone does something nice for you, you’re likely to feel grateful and, in turn, do something nice back.
Here are three ways to increase gratitude at work:
1. Gratitude journal. A common version of this involves writing down three new things each day for which you’re grateful. One experiment showed those asked to journal 5 things to be grateful for on a weekly basis for 10 weeks exercised significantly more and had fewer physical complaints than another group assigned to journal 5 hassles per week over the same time frame. Interestingly, similar studies over 2 week periods didn’t demonstrate significant differences between the two groups. So the research suggests journalling needs to be sustained. You could build this practice of gratitude into individual and team meetings by taking some time for people to share what they are grateful for.
2. Gratitude letters. This typically involves writing letters of appreciation to people you haven’t properly thanked. At work though it could be as simple as expressing gratitude to your people, and encouraging others to do the same.
3. Demonstrating genuine kindness. Why not commit to undertaking one additional kind act per day. It might be helping someone with their work, or grabbing an extra coffee for a colleague back at the office, or even being the person that empties the dishwasher.
Importantly, each of these three ideas need to be genuine. One study found writing a gratitude journal once a week was more effective than three times a week - the theory being that people put more effort into it and it was more genuine when done just once a week. Similarly other research showed the positive impacts are much greater for genuine kindness than what the researchers called “strategic kindness” (or doing something nice in order to gain a personal benefit).
Hopefully that’s prompted you to boost your gratitude, particularly at this busy time of the year. I have provided a link to a comprehensive review of the research on gratitude from Summer Allen at the University of California Berkeley, where the bulk of the research cited in this podcast was drawn. There’s also a link to Davidai and Gilovich’s research on headwinds and tailwinds, and a further article about the science of kindness.
And given today’s topic, I want to express my gratitude to those who have so wonderfully supported the podcast over the last year. Thanks for helping to get the word out and for sending through encouraging messages about how the content has helped in developing your leadership. Your ratings and reviews have also been extremely helpful - I read every review and appreciate the time people take to promote the podcast in that way.
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As it is heading into summer holidays in the lower half of our amazing planet, over the next seven weeks we will be featuring replays of some of our most popular episodes from 2018 and early 2019. I will be back with brand new episodes in February 2020. I look forward to speaking with you again then.
Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2016). The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 835–851. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000066
Summer Allen. 2018. The Science of Gratitude. Whitepaper. Greater Good Science Center at US Berkeley.
The chemistry and psychology of kindness. ABC Life / By Sophie Kesteven