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Posted by on Jun 3, 2012

EKG Part Three: Gratitude As A Leadership Practice

This is the third and final installment in a blog series that I have been writing about positive practices that leaders can use to improve the well-being as well as the performance of their teams. You can catch up on this series by clicking through the posts about empathy and kindness. Last but not least, this final post is about gratitude.

Many leaders do a fairly decent job of saying thank you to someone who has performed a much-needed task, or achieved a noteworthy outcome on a project. The basics of social skills and common courtesy will get most leaders that far. When I talk about employing gratitude as a leadership practice, however, I’m talking about something more than the occasional kudos. I’m talking about an intentional, consistent practice of infusing gratitude into how you are as a leader, not just what you do. Gratitude, then, becomes an attitude, not just an act. Here’s what I mean.

Imagine that it is 7pm on a Friday and you are still in your office. (This won’t be a stretch for many of you who are reading this post.) You are eager to get to your weekend plans and are starting to feel a tad worn out, maybe even a little resentful, about the stack of deliverables that are still on your desk. The more you think about the work you still have to do, the more shallow your breathing becomes and the more stressed you feel. You decide to sweep those reports into your briefcase and take them home so you can at least get out of the building. You’ve cleared your email as best you can; sorted out what priorities will need your top attention on Monday; the only thing left to do is turn off the computer and close the door. This is when I encourage you to stop and take just 15 minutes to do one more thing. I know, I can hear the groans from here – one more thing?! Yes.

Take 15 minutes to reflect on the most positive outcome of the week that one or more of your team members helped to achieve.

This doesn’t have to be a world record. This can be small, but significant to their ongoing development – possibly something that only you know they are working on. It can be about a micro shift in behavior that you noticed and want to see more of. Whatever it is, write down a few lines to capture what happened and why it made an impression on you (and possibly others). Once you get started, you may find that other examples from other team members start coming to mind. Write down those examples too. Don’t limit yourself to your own team, either. What comes up when you think about a department you interact with regularly? Are there any moments, large or small, that you feel grateful about this week? Capture as many examples as you can in this short block of time that you’ve set aside.

Now, you may think my next recommendation will be to write a thank you email or handwritten note to a team member to thank them for what they did. That is definitely one action you could take that may be meaningful to the person(s) on your team. Expressions of gratitude like that tend to have a multiplier effect, too. The more you do it, the more others may do it, which builds an appreciative culture that positively impacts how people feel about coming to work each day. Before taking that action though, my recommendation is that you just stop, reflect on the positive strides that you noticed around you during the week, and allow yourself a moment to experience gratitude about those efforts.

Next, notice what you’re feeling as you reflect on these efforts with gratitude. Notice your breathing – even your heart rate.  Notice your body language. Has it shifted from a stressed position with your shoulders nearly to your ears to a more relaxed, open position? Finally, notice your mindset compared to 15 minutes ago when you were desperate to leave your office. That stack of deliverables may still be waiting, but as you reflect on your team’s efforts with gratitude, what comes up? Do you feel a little more encouraged than resentful now? You may even catch yourself smiling as you visualize some of the actions that you wrote down. Given that our thought habits serve as the origination point for the eventual emotions and behaviors we exhibit, changing the way we think about something can have a profound impact on how you show up as a leader with others. Employing gratitude as a practice can help you to shift from a mindset of overwhelm into a mindset of positivity, appreciation, and renewed commitment to what your role calls for each day.

This brief 15-minute gratitude break is something you can do at any point in your day, not just at the end. One benefit to pausing then is that it helps to shift the busy, perhaps even frantic feel to the week into something more positive and productive. I don’t know about you, but that is my preferred onramp to the evening or weekend! If there is anyone waiting for you at home once you’ve left your office, I also predict that they will appreciate you taking a few moments to shift your mindset and your energy before you walk through the door.

It may take a few rounds of this practice until you truly allow yourself to slow down enough to experience a shift, but my prediction is that once you do it, you may actually start to look forward to it. For those of you who are not paper and pencil journaling types, there are also several applications out there to make it easy to record these short thoughts on your tablet, smart phone, or other devices. Above all, remember this: research shows that the simple act of pausing to surface feelings of gratitude produces a positive physiological impact that affects cognitive function and improves workplace performance (Check out Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim  Cameron for more). Put simply, practices like this create conditions that enable us to perform better because we feel better.

So, here are the leadership practices we’ve explored in this series.

E = Develop empathy.

K = Extend kindness.

G = Practice gratitude.

There are many other practical yet powerful practices that you can employ as a leader to create a positive, productive climate in your workplace. In the meantime, remember that the simple acronym I made up for this set of leadership practices – EKG – centers around your ability to share more of your heart with your team, not just your head.  It doesn’t matter which practice you start with. You might start by finding a point in your day or your week when you are willing to try this 15-minute gratitude practice consistently and see what you notice. Whatever you decide to start with, please write to me about it. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

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