Become a Great Leader by Practicing Gratitude: Here are 4 ways to get started

A lot has been written about what makes a leader great. Good communication skills and passion–check. Decisiveness, strong vision, perseverance, and integrity–check. Another quality that should be on that short list–especially in our post-pandemic world–is gratitude. The act of thanking others and expressing your appreciation in the workplace can go a long way in creating a positive culture while making you a better leader.

Just ask Chester Elton, a major thought leader on employee recognition and the co-author of Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results.

“A simple expression of gratitude lets people know that you care, that you’re empathetic to their needs,” he said when we spoke. “In all the studies and research we’ve done over 20 years, the common thread to really great cultures, really great teams and really great leaders is gratitude.”

Benefits of Gratitude

Let’s back up for a minute to talk about why gratitude is such a powerful practice. Gratitude is a positive state of mind in which you lead with appreciation. It’s a feeling of being thankful for things big and small—a sunny day after a week of rain, finding lasting love, your new job, or scoring an amazing deal on those jeans you’ve been stalking online.

Studies have demonstrated numerous links between gratitude and improved physical and mental health, wellness, resilience, and empathy. For example, gratitude research conducted at the University of Southern California (USC) reinforced how gratitude positively impacted health, social bonding, and stress relief.

What’s more is that actively expressing your gratitude to yourself and others on a regular basis increases its resonance, removing any limits on what is possible. According to neuroscientist Glenn Fox, an expert in the science of gratitude at the USC Marshall School of Business, “The limits to gratitude’s health benefits are really in how much you pay attention to feeling and practicing gratitude.”

Impressive stuff, right? So, imagine the benefits you get when regularly applying gratitude in the workplace. It makes you a better leader while creating a higher performing culture.

The comprehensive research Elton and his partners have conducted encompasses a database of over a million engagement surveys and countless interviews for his best-selling business books. They have found that a culture which focuses on employee recognition can experience three times higher ROI and lower turnover. When leaders add gratitude to the mix, that further increases employee engagement.

“Really good, talented people always have options, even during a recession. So why would they want to stay with your organization? When you create an ‘All-In’ culture of gratitude, excellence and retention, people believe what they do is noticed, celebrated, and reinforced, and that makes a difference,” explained Elton. “Expressing gratitude and appreciating people’s sacrifices and their work reinforces that what they do matters.”

Getting Better at Gratitude

Many leaders have to overcome a “gratitude gap” where they think they are much better at recognizing teams than they actually are. Within his research, Elton found that 70% of leaders think they are above average in giving recognition and gratitude, while only about 23% of their direct reports agree.

But you can do something about it. As Elton notes, “It is like any other leadership attribute. You’ve got to work at it. You must be committed to it and disciplined.”

A great starting point is checking out Elton’s book, which is excellent. And here are four tips to help build your gratitude prowess immediately:

1. Be Specific.

When you do practice gratitude, make it as specific as possible since general praise has little impact on others. For example, rather than issuing a general thank you, tell that recipient of your gratitude why you appreciate them. It could be their commitment to your company’s work and mission, handling a specific project well that you name, their persistence in solving a problem, etc. Those details matter a lot, ensuring people feel seen and acknowledged.

2. Establish some rituals.

Elton shares the example of Carlos Aguilera, a manager for Avis budget rental car in Dallas, who is committed to having 10 positive interactions with his people each day. He starts every morning putting 10 pennies in his left pocket and keeps track by moving a penny into his right pocket each time he accomplishes that task. That simple ritual helps keep Aguilera on track.

What can you do to serve as a reminder to regularly express gratitude?

3. Look for what’s going right.

It’s easy to spot things that are off-track. But when you deliberately look for what’s going well and call it out, that reinforces positive behaviors. And, once you notice those wins, communicate them. Send people thank you emails, or even better, handwritten notes about what you noticed. Perhaps jumping on a quick video chat or sending a funny Teams message of thanks really resonates with your culture.

4. Assume positive intent.

Finger pointing and assigning blame can harm a culture when it becomes pervasive. Instead, start from a place where you believe employees are trying to do the right thing even if things don’t go as planned. Of the eight gratitude practices Elton presents in Leading with Gratitude, he told me that assuming positive intentions from others is his favorite.

“That is the foundation of good relationships and having a great place to work,” he explained. “When you are a leader who assumes positive intent, your goal is to solve the problem, not worry about who to blame.”

How do you lead with gratitude? What impact has that behavior made on your work culture?

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