Going Through the Motions, or Truly Thankful? 6 Ways to Cultivate Your Gratitude as a Leader


Successful business man standing with his staff in background at office

When I was a child, my mother required me to write thank-you notes for relatives who gave me birthday and Christmas gifts. You know the kind … “THANC YU GRAMMA FOR THE WORM SOX.” It was a chore for me, and I’m sure that insincere feeling came across in both the formulaic message and delayed timing of the notes. Some years, I procrastinated so long that my thank-you notes weren’t sent until after the toys had broken and warm socks were lost.

A few years ago, I had a transaction with a businessman. Later that day, the guy’s assistant emailed me to ask for my mailing address. Soon I received a one-sentence thank-you note that felt insincere and vanilla. I learned the guy sent a large batch of thank-you notes every week. I pictured his assistant as Radar O’Reilly from the old TV show M.A.S.H., plopping down a pile of papers for the colonel to sign without much thought. To me, that doesn’t feel like sincere thanks — just routine follow-up for everyone with whom he had interacted that day.

In contrast, I received a thoughtful thank-you note around the same time from a different guy. It too was very short. But the words conveyed that he had reflected on what was special about me, and how I had uniquely affected him. Sometimes when I have self-doubts, I think about his inspiring note and feel renewed confidence.

This week, you’ll probably see many articles with lists of ideas for how to thank people. I encourage you to try them out. But much more important than delivering a “thank you” is to cultivate true gratitude in your heart. If you make no other improvement this year, practicing gratitude will significantly boost your leadership effectiveness.

Here are six practices to cultivate your gratitude as a leader:

  • Go through the motions to trigger the emotions. It can feel insincere to add “Send a thank-you note to Jim” to your to-do list. Isn’t that just another task to check off as done? But motions trigger emotions, and vice versa. If you thoughtfully practice the following steps, you will feel genuinely grateful — and develop an ongoing spirit of gratitude.
  • Keep a gratitude journal or list. In the past I haven’t been good at journaling consistently, but it’s been helpful each time I do it. Journaling is better because it encourages reflection and stronger feelings of gratitude, but I also find it helpful to at least jot down the who/what on a list. Either way, you’ll become more mindful, less forgetful, and more aware of the contributions of others.
  • As you fall asleep each night, review the day’s blessings.This practice kills two birds with one stone. First, it takes advantage of a quiet moment to reflect on your day — a great step for mindfulness and personal growth. Second, thinking about who and what you’re thankful for creates a peaceful mental state that contributes to a great night of sleep.
  • Try to send at least one handwritten thank-you every week or so. Saying thanks through email, text, or social media is easy and can be more timely. But writing by hand forces you to reflect more. For the recipient, handwritten notes are more fun and communicate sincerity.
  • Spend an extra few minutes to make each thank-you personally meaningful for the recipient. If you are going to the effort of writing and addressing a handwritten note, why not pause and reflect on what the person means to you and how they’ve contributed to your success and the team’s purpose? Often I worry that my scribbles will come across as sappy or goofy (and they probably do), but I’ve found that writing by hand negates such awkwardness — people overlook imperfect words and catch my intended spirit.
  • When you express gratitude or appreciation, take care to reinforce the person’s specific strengths. This is one way to practice strengths-based leadership, which increases your effectiveness and your team’s engagement.

I’m no poster-child of Thanksgiving. Much of the time I forget to thank people who deserve my gratitude, and I fall short in expressing appreciation in ways that are most meaningful to each recipient. But as in the old story about the person saving one starfish among an infinite number of dying starfish, each time I practice sincere gratitude it makes a difference to at least one person — me.

What have I missed? Let me know other practices of gratitude that you’ve found helpful.

For more about the power of gratitude, listen to Engaging Leader podcast episode 124: THX! How Practicing Gratitude Makes You a More Effective Leader.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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