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What the Sage and the Deer Know: The Power of Gratitude

I was prepping for a teleconference with the Wisdom Works leadership team this morning. In this case, “prepping” was not a legal-pad to-do list or an agenda on my computer screen, but rather a few quiet moments to look out the kitchen window. It’s that time of the summer when life is so visibly thriving in the sunlit purple sage bushes and the greens of the scrub oak trees — the sight of it this morning filled me with humble thanks. Or was it my upcoming call?

Like clockwork, we meet twice a month to talk about the health of our company, to make course corrections, and simply to connect with one another.  Staring out at the herd of deer scurrying down the path near my back patio, I took a moment to reflect on the state of our company’s performance, and was struck by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. I felt an energy surge — a sort of buzzy warm glow that perhaps those deer feel each morning when the sun hits them — and a smile naturally broke out on my face. With this hopeful grin and mood of appreciation, I joined our team for the meeting.

For over two decades I’ve studied the power of heart-centered emotions, such as gratitude, in creating vitality and enhancing performance for individuals, teams, and workplaces. It makes a lot of sense intellectually, but when it comes to actually experiencing its power first-hand, I have to say: Wow, gratitude is intoxicating stuff!  Every time I feel it personally, I realize that as a leader, nothing compares to the larger perspective and sense of optimism provided by genuine appreciation.

Instead of over-focusing on what’s wrong, what’s missing, or what’s problematic, from the lens of gratitude I’m more apt to focus on what’s working, what’s positive, and what’s “well.” I’ve noticed with our team, the “what’s well” grows on itself, creating more respect and enthusiasm between us and helping us collaborate and perform at our peak. Our management team meeting began with unsolicited kudos about the positive client feedback we’d recently received on some of our work. And the agenda items clipped right along at a pleasant and productive pace throughout our call.

Wikipedia says that gratitude is “a positive emotion or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive.” Clever definition.  Gratitude is not only the goodness you reap after an action is done; it is also a proactive attitude you can bring beforehand, which then shapes the resulting goodness coming your way.  The tradition is to say grace before a meal; to put hands over hearts before the big game; to bless the yoga practice before doing it. Gratitude is more powerful when it is forward-looking, not merely reactionary. Thus follows the modern reversal of the old adage: first believe it, then you’ll see it.

According to research done at the psychology lab of the University of California at Davis, in day to day life, grateful people sleep better, think less negative thoughts, cope more effectively with transition, experience greater resilience during challenges, have higher energy and build more satisfying relationships. This works in organizational life, too. How many calls to that “how’s my driving” number on the back of trucks do you think are actually compliments? You’ll be surprised by the answer and the results that come from gratitude: people-savvy organizations like Kelmar Safety (the “how’s my driving” company) strategically use gratitude to improve customer satisfaction and employee happiness. These organizations know that people — that’s all of us — want to be paid attention to, cared for, and valued. And we always make it worth the effort.

It’s certainly sensible to notice the affects gratitude has on others — on leader morale, worker performance, employee engagement. But as the deer and sage bushes sunning themselves in my back yard keep reminding me, there is no substitute for the feeling of gratitude in your own body.

Photo by law_keven