By Rachael McCann – November 2023
Cultivating a Culture of Appreciation for Empowered Teams and Effective Leaders
Every morning, my husband and I do a guided meditation together. One of us gets the coffee, while the other tees up the day’s practice. Recently, we completed a 21-day guided series on gratitude. It challenged me to think differently about how gratitude can become a bigger part of not only my daily practice, but my perception of the world and sense of fulfillment in my own life.
The question, “What am I grateful for?” easily becomes rote—of course I am grateful for the roof over my head, my three healthy children and grandson on the way, and my life partner of 33 years who is my best friend (and usually the one getting up to make us coffee). All of Maslow’s hierarchy is checked off in grand style, so the question becomes, how can I extend gratitude beyond the obvious? How can I value the people and things in my life that inspire me to think differently, find empathy in the face of disappointment, and counter the instinct to judge with intentional gratitude instead?
Gratitude as a Practice
Eva Zautra, researcher and founder of the Social Intelligence Institute, contends that gratitude is not an emotion, it’s a character trait you can develop, like kindness or helpfulness. She says, “It’s who you are, and you can practice it until you become it. I used to resent when someone told me I should be grateful. It felt preachy and accusatory. It wasn’t until I realized that we are all connected and part of something greater than ourselves, that I understood what gratitude really means.” This mindset allows us to be thankful for everything, from the mundane to the magnificent.
Gratitude is a powerful weapon against negativity. Our jobs or teams may be less than perfect but focusing too much on the negative can distort our perception, impact culture, and cause us to miss opportunities for appreciation.
Gratitude as a Vital Component of Well-being
Our brains at a cellular level do not know the difference between perception and reality. For example, when our brain perceives danger, the body has a physiological response to that, like increased heart rate and respiration, regardless if the danger is real or imagined. Likewise, when we express negativity, our brain interprets our reality as negative, so that is what we experience.
Teacher and author, Deepak Chopra, talks about the impact being grateful has on both how we perceive the world and our mental and physical well-being. He says, “Gratitude changes your relationship with life from an attitude of rejecting and defending to one of acceptance and appreciation. Research has shown that this shift involves emotions, beliefs and even our bodies. Because it has a positive effect even on our cells, gratitude is an engine for holistic change.” As it turns out, gratitude actually does do a body good.
Gratitude in the Workplace Impacts Teamwork and Collaboration
One of the tools we use at Stop At Nothing that I have found most useful is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It identifies the fundamental building blocks that underlie our behaviors and leadership styles. It is a very simple exercise that is invaluable in helping me be a more empathetic and tolerant partner rather than judgmental and ego-driven.
It assumes that most behavior is not personal and is not intended to directly irritate you but is rather a product of how a person is hard-wired and operating at their peak performance. You may not be able to necessarily relate to their thinking or behaviors, but you can respect their differences once you understand where it comes from. This then builds good will and lays the foundation for a high-functioning team rooted in trust and appreciation for everyone’s unique contributions. It nurtures an environment of diverse thinking and creativity, which has a far-reaching impact on everything from products to people management.
Gratitude in the Workplace Impacts Performance and Engagement
As leaders, we also know that expressing gratitude to our teams is a key factor in their job satisfaction and productivity, and there is an abundance of research illustrating the impacts of appreciation on culture and morale. Appreciation inspires authenticity and connection, which directly correlates to reduced stress levels and feeling valued. Creating a culture of appreciation becomes even more important for organizations experiencing a lot of change and disruption, especially in a post-pandemic environment. Workhuman reports that, “Fewer than one in four employees say their organization cares about their wellbeing – nearly half the number who said the same before COVID-19 rocked the workplace.” Research by Gallup and Workhuman has also established a connection between employee recognition and wellbeing, finding that “Employees who receive the right amount of recognition for their work experience lower burnout, improved daily emotions, and stronger relationships with their co-workers,” and that, “When employees have thriving wellbeing and are experiencing the best recognition experiences possible, they’re more likely to be a top performer, and are less likely to be actively looking or watching for job opportunities” (Workhuman & Gallup, 2022).
But effective appreciation goes beyond performance-based recognition; appreciation must be perceived as authentic and based on the value of the whole person, not just their contributions. Building a culture of gratitude starts at the top, and when people feel valued, they in turn feel grateful for the opportunities their job provides. We arguably spend more time with our colleagues than any other individuals in our lives, so it makes sense that the same things that cultivate happiness and satisfaction in our personal lives also apply professionally.
Our work at Stop At Nothing is dedicated to shining a light on how our personal experiences are inextricably linked to how we show up for our teams, and our ability to show up with gratitude has far-reaching implications. As I work with clients, I hear a wide variety of feedback regarding what makes people feel appreciated and valued, but the common theme is that regular positive feedback, verbal appreciation, and recognition in front of their peers far outweigh the impact of financial reward.
Gratitude in Action in our Daily Lives
It can be difficult to find things to be thankful for in challenging situations, but when you consider it a stretch assignment to show up with an open mind, it helps you become not just someone who demonstrates thankfulness in the moment, but someone who is truly a grateful person.
The Holiday Season and new year will be full of opportunities to be grateful in ways that stretch us, make us uncomfortable, and open our mind. It may be a quirky cousin at the dinner table, a neighbor with an over-the-top light display, or a colleague that finds the holidays stressful (or even painful) that gives us the opportunity to be curious and extend good will rather than being judgmental.
Being grateful for all these areas of contrast may seem counterintuitive, but I am betting that facing the day with the intention to find surprising new ways to feel and express gratitude will help me navigate the frenetic pace of year’s end and launch into the new year in better health, with stronger relationships, and better equipped to handle stress and adversity with grace.
In the process, I look forward to learning—Is my life full because I am grateful, or am I grateful because my life is full?