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Leadership Q&A: Creating a Culture of Gratitude


A culture exists where people share common values, traditions and expectations for their relationships.

How does this work in a business?

In the most general terms, a business is organization around four areas of activity.

1. Governance by a board or management team.

2. Program, products or services provided to clients, customers and constituents.

3. Operations and administration that support the programmatic side of the business.

4. Resources, which are in general terms, financial, material, intellectual and human.

In a business, each of these areas will have a “way” it is done that makes it distinctive. It is a culture of values, traditions and expectations. Think of it as a “lens” through which people see or interpret what these functions of a business mean, and how they are to be conducted.

It is this culture of values, traditions and expectations that distinguishes one organization from another. It is why some people “fit” in the company and others don’t. It is why change is so hard to accomplish. Most organizational resistance to change is cultural. That is one reason why logical, analytical reasons for change are often not successful.

To understand an organization you have to see both the functioning components of governance, program, operations and resources, and the cultural components of values, traditions and expectations. Both sets of perspective are important, especially, if new leadership arrives and knows that change is needed for the organization to move forward.

Of the three aspects of a culture, the values part is the most important. Traditions and the expectations of people are formed by these values. Values are THE core intellectual property of a business. They are more important that purpose, more important than policies, more important than the measures of success. They are the ideas that inform how we understand what our purpose, approach and accomplishments mean.

It is also true that they are probably the most hidden aspect of a business. Our values are so close to us that we don’t see them until their validity is threatened by change or other values.

A Culture of Gratitude

This leads me to a question suggested by today’s column’s title: How do we create a Culture of Gratitude. Last week I wrote about how gratitude is a gift. The underlying message (value?) is that gratitude is not just a feeling but an action that we take; not just a response in thanks, but a way of looking at an organization. It is a culture that has its own values, traditions and expectations by people, and a culture that has its own actions that are uniquely its own.

The Values of Gratitude are simple. We see our life and work, even our organizations, our clients and staff as gifts of goodness and unrealized potential.  As a result, our actions in relation to each of these aspects of a business, accordingly are to treat them with the respect due a gift. These values are contrary to the isolated independence that is found in many organizations. To see a business as a gift leads to the realization of what I’ve been writing about for the past couple of months, that we are stewards of the gifts that we receive in our organizations. In a culture of gratitude, there is little place for the embittered sense of entitlement that can be found in many organizations.

The Traditions of Gratitude grow out of relationships where gratitude is expressed. These traditions build unity and a sense of purpose among the members of the organization’s constituency. Traditions of gratitude honor people for their contributions, and serves to elevate a shared responsibility for the whole organization.

The Expectations for Gratitude is for more than being thanked for good work. It is an expectation that relationships within the company will be marked by respect, trust, and appreciation.

Aligning Structure with CultureCircle of Impact - Life-Work image

The problem in creating a culture of gratitude is thinking that it is about the ideas or values that people share in their relationships. There is more to it as I’ve come to see.

We need to align our culture with our structure, in order to see how a culture of gratitude informs and impacts the four aspects of an organization identified above.

Last week, I wrote about the values of kindness and openness as an integral part of the practice of gratitude.

How do we align Kindness and Openness?

Where does Kindness and Openness fit in the practices and policies of Governance?

How are the products, programs and services of our organization infused with kindness and openness?

Are the operations and administration of our company examples of the practice of kindness and openness?

How is the development and use of our resources guided by kindness and openness?

I know that these are not easy questions to answer. But that is why it is important to find a way to align the functional side of a business with its culture.

A culture of gratitude is a relationship based culture. It is not an ad-hoc nod of the head to relationships, but rather a way to organized a company with relationships at the center of its culture and business. This is the future. Not that gratitude is the future, but the quality of relationships as the driving force of a business that results from a culture of gratitude is the future. Gratitude is a perspective for understanding just how the relational side of a business can function at its best. For it to do so requires that we learn how to align the functions of our businesses with relationships that are marked by kindness, openness, and gratitude. This is why culture is an important key to the future of organizations.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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