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Work Life Lead: The Gift of Gratitude

This is a post in a continuing series on The Stewardship of Gratitude.

For some people, gratitude is a feeling that produces happiness. For others, it is a common courtesy that is the fuel of etiquette and ethics. For many, it is an unknown territory waiting for discovery. It is, however, a gift that daily is making a difference in the lives of people world over.

My interest in this column is to begin to identify the place that gratitude has in the practice of leadership in organizations, and its relationship to the principles of stewardship that I identified in earlier columns.

The gift that people experience through the expression of gratitude is many faceted. The awareness that we have when we express gratitude is the reception of some gift or benefit from someone else.

As I’ve reflected on my own experience, what I’ve come to see as the gift that another person gives that results in my saying thanks is kindness. Aristotle, in his book on Rhetoric, writes:

Kindness — under the influence of which a person is said to “be kind” — may be defined as helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper themself, but for that of the person helped. Kindness is great if shown to one who is in great need, or who needs what is important and hard to get, or who needs it at an important and difficult crisis; or if the helper is the only, the first, or the chief person to give the help.

This is the sort of kindness that most of us have experienced in our life at some point. It may be through a friend, or an aunt or uncle, through the influence of an adult mentor or even as recognition in our work. The kindness is often given without any expectation of return. It is a simple expression of appreciation and affection that touches us in a meaningful, authentic way.

Our response is to say thanks.  This is the picture I saw two years ago reading Daniel Pink’s fine little book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. The story is of a young man who was lost in a corporate environment, found his purpose and direction through the help of a variety of people through whom he learned some of life’s important lessons. As a participant in an online contest that Dan created, I logically concluded that what Johnny needed to do was to say thanks to those people everyday, out of which was born the lesson,  Say Thanks Every Day. From that day until now, I’ve been on a journey of growing awareness about the importance and impact of gratitude in life and work. I believe I can say that I am growing into becoming a more grateful person, rather than an expert on gratitude. There is a difference.

To Say Thanks Every Day is to be aware of the gifts that have to come to us in our life and work. To be grateful is to say thanks, and return kindness as a gift of gratitude.

An effect of the practice of gratitude is openness. There is a deep sliver of humanity who sees openness as an essential element in how we function in life and work. The Open Source movement began as a technology focused agenda, but has expanded beyond in all kinds of fields, as openness and transparency become standards for assessing the performance of organizations.

The practice of gratitude can be a gift of openness to an organization. It isn’t just about opening the books, creating collaborative workteams or sharing openly in the development of next generation software. There is another aspect of openness that remains to be explored.

One of the Five Actions of Gratitude that I have identified is the practice of Making Welcome. This openness to people goes beyond simple hospitality. It requires the creation of an environment of openness that results in individual members of the organization having the freedom to take initiative to create goodness for the company.

This sort of openness lowers the barriers to leadership in the organization. Leadership understood in a particular way. Not positional leadership, but rather the impact of personal leadership within the range of responsibilities and talents that each person has. This openness is focused on the conditions required for a person to feel that there is permission for them to give their very best, to be creative, and to make a difference in ways that may not have been in the original plan.  In other words, this type of openness provides for an organizational environment where each person’s talent has a greater potential to be fulfilled in action.

It is not enough for openness to be a good idea, or even something that is communally shared with people in an organization. Openness needs to be structured by policy and practice, by training and adaptation, in order for it to become truly beneficial.

Gratitude becomes a gift of kindness when organizational leaders recognize that to open up their organizational systems to the initiative and talent of their people is to create a more harmonious, productive workforce. When a person feels appreciated because of the recognition she has received, then there is the likelihood that she will begin looking for ways to improve the functioning of her area. Create this environment for 10%, 20% or even 50% of your managers and staff, and the conditions for the company’s success have changed for the better.

There is a great discussion taking place about how to change organizational structures to become more humane and collaborative. By the giving gratitude’s gift of kindness and openness to your company, you’ll be taking great steps towards achieving a better, more sustainable structure for your business in the future.

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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