Being Genuine While Living a Life of Gratitude

November is National Gratitude Month. This is Part 4 of our four-part series on the importance and power of gratitude — a small word with big meaning. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Have you ever known someone whose interactions with you seemed totally forced and disingenuous?

When I was a teenager I worked at McDonald’s. It was a great job and one I’m really thankful for having worked at. As a teenager I put on a good front but my self-esteem was usually pretty low — I got made fun of because I didn’t wear cool clothes, I had a lisp and my sense of humour definitely didn’t jive with my contemporaries. But McDonald’s did wonderful things for my self-esteem. It put me in a system where I did the same thing over and over again and when I was done whatever it was my job happen to be that day – if I had followed the steps – I put out a perfect product. It taught me that within a system I could do something my bosses were proud of and it showed me I could be successful.

Most of the employees and managers were wired this way. No one was excited if I made a Big Mac with tomatoes instead of the secret sauce. They were happy and congratulated me when I did what was expected.

We had one manager that did all the same things the others did. He said thank you after a shift and would congratulate you after a big rush but something was amiss with him. If you saw him in the hallway after your shift he didn’t have time to engage you even in small talk and when you had a question about how you could improve in your job his response would be something akin to “work harder.” Of course if you were his boss then he had all the time in the world for you.

The defining moment and what helped me understand what this particular manager was all about was when I learned the truth behind the university letter jacket he wore. My sister had attended that same university so when I had the occasion to chat with him I would ask him about his time there. I was often met with vague answers and non-committed responses. It was during a discussion with one of his co-managers one day that it was revealed he hadn’t actually attended that university but swiped the jacket at a party.

It became so clear to me that day this guy was built on lies. His praise on the floor was only meant to serve as a way for him to check off a box on the “how to be a manger” list. “Yep, told them good work, what’s next – okay – count the till.” On the surface, he did all the right things from welcoming crew with a big smile to the requisite slaps on the back for a job well done.

But the emptiness behind his actions seeped through his pores for one simple reason: he wasn’t being genuine.

And with all traits of the Nice Leader, being genuine is fundamental but maybe no where is it more important then when living a life of gratitude.

Gratitude cannot be faked. Have you ever seen a parent forcing their child to apologize for something when it’s clear they would rather being sticking forks in their eyes than saying sorry to someone? The same applies to forcing gratitude, it simply can’t be faked and when it is forced the results are disastrous. It has the same feeling as narcissist post on social media sites and comes across as being self-serving.

Want to make your direct reports cringe and roll their eyes behind your back? Feign gratitude towards them.

The good news is the methodology for increasing your capacity for gratitude is the same for becoming grateful in the first place. In one of Dr. Emmons studies he asked participants to keep journals and record either moments of gratitude, hassles or neutral life events. They recorded their mood, coping behaviours, health behaviours, physical symptoms and life behaviours. Those who kept a journal detailing what they had gratitude for found they felt better but also found it easier to express gratitude.

The journal entries weren’t complicated. Entries ranged from “Woke up this morning,” through “I live close to my family,” and “Saw grandson get first haircut.”

A simple first step to increasing your capacity for gratitude is to start keeping a gratitude journal. Find a book or open note taking software and everyday, write down three things you’re grateful for. To increase the effectiveness of this exercise, don’t stop at just writing down your three items, take time to think about them, relish in them and enjoy them in your mind.

If you’re reading this and thinking it’s a bit too “touchy feely” for you — don’t fret it. No one has to know you’re keeping a gratitude journal and what you write down doesn’t have to include entries like “soft kittens,” or “the smell of pistachio muffins as I lazily stroll down the boulevard.”

The entries can just as easily be “Watched my favourite team come back from a huge second half deficit,” or “Killed it in my quarterly presentation to the executive team.” The key is to treat this exercise with purpose. Keep it off your to-do list because if you are honest about increasing your capacity for gratitude you don’t want it mingling next to things like “pick up eggs and bread for dinner.” For journaling to be effective you have to commit yourself to wanting to be more effective. If you just go through the motions it won’t have the deep and lasting effect and is tantamount to not having done it at all.

As you keep your gratitude journal, two effects will start to be revealed to you. The first is you’ll be much more conscious of positive realities in your life and the second is you’ll find yourself making your gratitude entries much more personal. Making your entries personal has a greater impact than writing about things you’re grateful for. This will also help you get into the habit of recognizing in your colleagues and direct reports the qualities you have gratitude for. Furthermore, if it were things that led to our greatest feelings of gratitude and not people, then you’d expect the richest countries in the world to have the happiest people. But the London-based New Economics Foundation which compiles a list of the happiest countries based on metrics such as life expectancy and environmental sustainability puts Costa Rica and Vietnam at the top and includes the likes of Belize and Jamaica in their top ten. Hardly a list of the who’s-who in the highest GDP club.

The amount of time you spend keeping your gratitude journal matters as well. It might seem counterintuitive but you’ll want to avoid writing in it every day. Research has shown it’s more effective to write in your journal once a week for six weeks rather than as often as three times a week for the same period.

Finally, the actual act of recording your thoughts down is important opposed to taking time out each day to think or meditate on them. When you write your thoughts down or input them into a note taking program it helps make the ideas concrete and gives you deeper insight into what you’ve written down. Dr. Emmons told blogger Jason Marsh, “Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”

If feeling grateful just doesn’t seem to come naturally to you, try faking it until you make it. The caveat is you choose low-risk situations to fake it. Not feeling grateful today? Try paying for the order behind you in the coffee drive-thru. Put on a song that always makes you happy and want to dance. Tell someone you trust that you don’t really feel that grateful today and see if they can’t come up with a few reasons why you should be.

In the Bible, there is a passage in the New Testament where the author writes he would not know what sin was had it not been for the law. Part of the message here is there needs to be a measuring stick so he can tell how far off the mark he is.

The same is true for developing your aptitude for gratitude. When you’re trying to bring a level of gratefulness to your life and those around you in the workplace you needn’t shy away from the negative. In fact, being able to recognize, understand and embrace setbacks can lead to a greater ability to show gratitude.

Your ability to recognize a setback or a difficult situation and then compare it to a similar situation from your past will enable you to truly appreciate your current state. The saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” is a bit wide-sweeping but it does hold water when thinking about gratitude. The idea that past experiences have prepared you for today’s challenges can lead to feelings of gratitude. It may also encourage you to turn certain challenges on their head.

Your meeting room is cold? Can you be thankful for the great view? This idea underscores the work of George Valiant who in in his 1993 book, The Wisdom of Ego, suggested the ability to replace bitterness and resentment with gratitude and acceptance leads to better personal and organizational outcomes.

Have you ever had the opportunity to work with a really innovative and smart person. The kind of person who when you say “here’s my problem,” has five potential solutions that are all viable?

I had the opportunity to work with someone like that and they had this sage advice for me, “The best kind of compliment to a direct report is the kind you can give to others, especially if those others include other bosses.”

He was right. Giving compliments — a.k.a. showing gratitude — is one thing, but if you can celebrate that person in public it’s even better.

When it’s time to show gratitude, it’s also time to be humble. As a leader in your organization, staff look to you to set the example and guidance but the day-to-day operations — the stuff that makes your organization move forward — that’s the responsibility of the team. Thank them publicly for all they do and share with them how any success you’ve had is largely a result of their hard work.

Showing gratitude happens in many ways and in many forms. Take saying thank you when someone holds the door open for you. You don’t seek that person out a few hours later and heap praise on them for holding the door as you walked through it. Hardly! You do it right away, you’re specific and you do it to them in person. Similarly, when someone at work deserves gratitude, don’t wait and don’t hold back. Do it in a timely manner and while a note or an email will suffice, in person or over the phone is far superior.

Recalling the need the be genuine, it’s important to temper your praise at an appropriate level. Did someone work late to finish a project? In the context of your organization would an appropriate response be to thank that person the next day at an all-staff meeting? What if this sort of behaviour happens often by many people? Then perhaps attending to their work area to thank them in person is a better option. The last thing you’d want to happen is your genuine display of gratitude be cheapened because the way its delivered has become a common commodity.

Finally, be specific. Let the person or team know why you’re grateful and how their actions have positively affected your life. A former colleague of mine always exhibited tremendous loyalty to her manager and when I asked why the response was powerful.

“One day I sent out an email asking for some information I knew was important but hadn’t been asked for,” she said. “I was confident my manger wouldn’t mind because our culture was such that it wasn’t about who worked towards results as long as the team was headed in the right direction.

“The next day the first thing they did, before they even took off their coat was to thank me for picking up the ball. They knew it might seem like a simple task to me but they had been so overwhelmed at work when they saw the email it communicated to them that I was looking out for the betterment of the team. They told me they were able to relax and sleep better that night because they truly felt like part of a winning team and that my actions led to all those great feelings.”

Gratitude doesn’t have to be a mystery. There isn’t another trait of the Nice Leader that is easier to attain and has such a great rate of return. It’s also as easy to become skilled at as boiling an egg and works at every level of leadership.