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Work Life Lead: Creating An Open Culture of Gratitude


More and more it is becoming evident that organizational leaders are not just decision-makers and systems managers, but the creators of a culture for the achievement of impact.

Borrowing from the open source software movement, let’s describe this kind of culture as an open one.

What is an open culture, and what distinguishes it from past approaches to leading organizations?

Think of a culture being the product of the ideas and relationships of people.  A culture, as a result, has distinguishing characteristics, patterns of activity and branded ideas. systems and material objects that represent that culture. A culture is also those connecting ideas of purpose, values and vision that are acted out by the people within the culture. In this sense, the culture is what binds people together to a group, a movement or an organization, and provides them a way to interact and support what matters to them collectively.

Therefore, cultures can be open or closed, healthy or dysfunctional, unified or confused, sustainable or dying.

I am suggesting that the key to creating a healthy, sustainable culture for your business, organization or community is openness.

For example, with an open culture there are low barriers to contributing. A new person can join, and immediately make an impact. There is no process of jumping through hoops to determine whether you are worthy of contributing. I see this particularly in social organizations, whether a club or religious congregation. In a more open culture. people join and start participating and contributing right away. And the contribution is valued, and not just something perfunctory, like being a member of the least important committee.

Another characteristic of an open organizational culture is a high incidence of personal initiative being taken by members. In my mind, initiative is the beginning of all leadership. Without initiative, there is no leadership, only passive followership.

In a closed culture, the initiative is reserved for the authority figures. They decide what the group does and doesn’t do. This high control environment means that personal initiative is resisted and those who may be more independent, creative and innovative in their attitudes and behaviors are discouraged or punished for being so.

In an open culture, people recognize that they have the opportunity and responsibility to create new and better ways of realizing the impact of their organization.  So, they take personal initiative to make  difference that matters.

The Connection from Openness to Gratitude

As the importance of creating an open environment in a business became more clear to me, I came to realize that the Five Actions of Gratitude that emerged from my Say Thanks Every Day project of last year was not just a collection of good ideas, but a core strategy for creating openness in a business.

Say Thanks Every Day was an idea that I submitted as an answer to a national contest by Daniel Pink to promote his book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You Will Ever Need. This simple idea had such resonance with people that I had to pay attention to what they were saying to me. So, instead of being closed minded, and discounting what people were saying, and moving on to the next project, I tried to discern what I was hearing. From that interaction with people, I saw five actions that people and organizations can do to practice gratitude everyday. And what I now appreciate even more is that there is more there than I even recognized at the time. In other words, if you as the leader of your business were to practice these five actions of gratitude, then it would transform every aspect of your business.  Let me show you.

The Five Actions of Gratitude as Open Organization Strategy

Each of the actions is an outreach of openness to others. It is not protective, defensive, exclusionary or elitist. It is open, grateful, giving, welcoming, respectful and creative.

To Say Thanks is to recognize another person or group’s contribution. Do this genuinely and regularly, and those contributions are encouraged even more.

To Give Back is to recognize that I want to return back to a person, group or a community some measure of the goodness that I’ve received from them. This is not a payback of a debt owed. Rather, it is an act of thankful contribution. Imagine if this was the culture of your office right now. What would it would it look like. Maybe, what you’d see is a higher level of not just contribution, but sharing of work and responsibilities so that it gets done, and done well.

To Make Welcome is to act as host to your guests. It is easy to see customers as guests. How about your employees, your vendors, or even your competitors? By creating an environment of openness by welcoming people into your business, you invite them to contribute through their personal initiative and the exercise of their talent. Imagine if everyone of your employees were contributing just 10% more than they were a year ago. What difference would that make to your business’ ability to serve customers?

To Honor Others is to recognize that none of us are self-made people. We all have those who have made it possible for us to be here. Some we might know, like our parents, or a mentor, others we might not know.  However, if we practice honoring people for their contributions, then we’ll see that honor being shared with others. And the workplace will become a place of honor, and not a place of drudgery and low morale.

To Create Goodness is see that all that we do contributes or detracts from our families, businesses, communities and industry. When we open up the culture of our organizations, we invite people to be creative in innovate new ideas, approaches and products. It is not about what I can get in return, but rather how can we create an environment that is healthy and sustaining to all.

Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude

These practices are not just good ideas, which they are, not just good things to do, which they are, but more importantly systems for the effective functioning of every organization. In order for a system of gratitude to be developed, the system that currently exists must be changed or replaced. It may be a small change or a large one, but turning your organization into an open culture of gratitude will create an environment of leadership that will attract the best people to join you.

Leading in an Open Culture of Gratitude

Now, here’s the catch or the rub, as they say. Transforming your organization’s culture from a closed one to an open one is dependent on you changing first.  It is a simple change, but a very difficult one. It is difficult because it is not tactical, but personal. In order for an open culture of gratitude to grow, you have to decide in your own mind that you are not the go-to-guy for everything, that you can’t make every decision, resolve every issue, be the king or queen on the throne, and be the one who dictates the course of your business.  You can’t even be the expert at creating an open culture of gratitude. You have to realize that you are a facilitator of talent, and that the value of that talent is only realized fully when each person is free to exercise their personal initiative for the greater good of the customer, the other employees, the business and the community. This is a change of mindset, of attitude and behavior. This is the supreme test of the character of the leader. Can you let go and let you people lead? If you can, then you can create an open culture of gratitude. If not, then you will be following those who can do it.

Openness is the key, and gratitude is the strategy that elevates openness to a practical, functional level. Be grateful, giving, welcoming, honoring and creative and you’ll find new depth of impact emerging from the parts of your organization that never produced to their potential. It all starts by being open.

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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