“A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected.”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything that keeps me inspired and committed to do what I do more than receiving a small, personal note from someone on my team. Even the humblest appreciation note that reveals the impact I have been able to have on someone else stirs strong emotion and joy.

Through such events, I have recognized the power of gratitude. It has become a part of my leadership philosophy, a mechanism for organizational change, and a favorite leader development activity.

“Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves and spend without fear of bankruptcy.”

―Fred De Witt Van Amburgh

Why Leadership and Gratitude?

Gratitude felt does not automatically lead to gratitude expressed; I may feel grateful toward someone for something, but it does them and our team no good if I don’t share it. Thus, I see that there are a few reasons why leading with gratitude is important – for us personally and for our people & team:

  • Creates Belonging: Expressing gratitude enables our teammates to feel seen, valued, and appreciated; we feel like we belong.
  • Mechanism to Practice Feedback: Feedback is critical for development, self-awareness, and team performance. It is also extremely sensitive – hard to both deliver to and receive from others. Just as being deliberate in expressing gratitude is challenging, so is delivering feedback. We need to practice giving and receiving feedback; it’s not a natural ability, but a skill that must be developed. Expressing gratitude is a safe way to practice giving feedback to others because it is encouraging and will always be received positively. But like feedback, our expressed gratitude must be specific, clearly celebrating a specific behavior and articulating the impact it has had on you & others.
  • Leader Engagement: In order to express gratitude, we must know what to be grateful for. This requires us to be engaged with our people and team to know what is going on. Gratitude is a great way to keep a pulse on the team and celebrate positive behaviors and achievements.
  • Cultivates Empathy: Being deliberate in expressing gratitude forces us to slow down, reflect, and intentionally think about others. It helps us be others-focused.
  • Encourages Resiliency: There are no conditions to expressing gratitude. It has nothing to do with our circumstances or environment, and everything to do with our heart and perspective. Practicing it can help us to demonstrate and develop resiliency by recognizing that there are things and people to be grateful for no matter what is going on in life.

5 Ways to Express Gratitude

Just like any skill or habit, leading with gratitude takes practice (and maybe a little creativity). To help inspire us to begin developing gratitude as a leader behavior and habit, I offer five ways that we can begin to lead with gratitude:

  • Reflection: Before we can express it to others, we must feel and identify it. Routine reflection on questions like “what am I grateful for today” can be valuable ways to start thinking about gratitude more, enabling you to better express and lead with gratitude. Capturing them in a notebook, journal, or even index cards can help show us that there is lot to be aware of and grateful for over time.
  • Recognize & Celebrate Values: Recognizing and celebrating people for living out our team or organizational values bring those values to life for others. They create examples for what those values look like in action and reinforces the values across the group. But doing this also expresses gratitude to those that embody our values. When celebrating people in this way, I like to be deliberate in publicly stating, “Thank you, Sarah, for living out our values, for being such a great example to others, and for representing our team so well. You’re a great role model and I appreciate your impact.” Such statements can express gratitude while reinforcing our team’s shared core values.
  • Responding to Team Contributions: Contributing to meetings or brainstorming sessions, or offering constructive feedback is challenging. It requires us to be vulnerable and we are fearful of social consequences. Merely offering responses of affirmation and appreciation to ideas, no matter how big or small or good or bad, can offer gratitude and build safety within the team. Simple comments like, “Thanks for sharing that, Steve. I appreciate your idea and your willingness to help,” demonstrates gratitude, belonging, and engagement.
  • Put It on the Calendar: We make time for what is important and a clear way to make time for things is by blocking time on your calendar. Like all habits, it’s good to start small. So, I recommend blocking a small amount of time on your calendar, say 15-minutes, once a week to write one gratitude card to someone on your team and hand-deliver it. Over time, you can expand the habit as you desire or as feasible to a few cards a week, etc. Remember to make your notes timely (as much as you can) and specific – clearly targeting the person’s behavior or attitude and the impact it had on you and/or the team. Another starting consideration: focus on the person, not performance. To start, this can cost you 15-min a week and maybe $10 for a pack of thank you cards.
  • Make It an Organizational Activity: As mentioned earlier, gratitude, like all skills and habits, must be practiced. To make it important beyond just ourselves to the rest of the team, we should offer it as an activity to them. Personally, I like facilitating “gratitude weeks” a few times a year; these give focus to the event, makes it special, and creates opportunities to educate and inspire others toward committing to it beyond just those weeks year-round. We use team-personalized cards and keep track of how many the team writes over the week (a metric to celebrate at the end). Another idea is to include it into meeting agendas at the start or end, having everyone fill out a card or two if they desire.

Let’s Start with Gratitude

If you’re still hesitant of this idea of leadership and gratitude, or it still seems too soft and “feely” for you, I like to share two quotes that I contemplate often:

“Most people need love and acceptance a lot more than they need advice.”

―Bob Goff

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant…”

–Max DePree

I’ve found that the greatest value we can bring others or impact we can have is often not some grand skill or ability. It can simply be inspiring, appreciating, developing, and enabling others to become the best versions of themselves. I see gratitude as an important enabler in accomplishing that – and a great place to start.

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