How The Ancient Practice Of Gratitude Helps Modern Teams Thrive

Gratitude comes to the forefront every November and many of us are familiar with personal rituals like a gratitude journal, which are indeed beneficial any time of year. However, the origins of this emotion we call gratitude are often overlooked and hold a key to fostering a strong, resilient team.

Research has uncovered a few key effects that are particularly relevant to our current environment. The act of experiencing and expressing gratitude:

  • Blocks negative emotions
  • Reduces the harmful impact of stress 
  • Increases self-worth
  • Reduces feelings of isolation
  • Reduces our need to feel in control of our environment

To reap those benefits as a team, it is useful to understand four things about the origin of gratitude:

  1. Evolutionary theories posit that gratitude was a natural selection adaptation that led to “sequential” reciprocity—a willingness to give to someone else without an immediate payback, even when the giving comes at a cost to ourselves. In essence, gratitude facilitates the type of social exchange that is foundational for any functioning society or group.
  2. It’s a social emotion with three components: 1) a recognition that there are good things in the world; 2) an appreciation that we’ve benefited from them; and 3) an acknowledgement that the source of goodness is outside ourselves.
  3. It’s an emotion that benefits all parties. When a person expresses gratitude to someone else, both people feel happier, more connected, and more likely to be generous in the future.
  4. This benefit is so strong that it even leads to upstream reciprocity or “pay-it-forward” behavior. When someone is on the receiving end of a generous or kind act, they are more likely to be kind and generous to someone else.

Bottom line: Gratitude is one of the only emotions where expressing it actually grows it. And the more it grows, the more the team benefits. Teams with strong gratitude practices experience tighter social bonds, more trust, more goodwill, a greater willingness to help each other, and a greater inclination to give public credit to others. 

How To Get Started

Implementing a gratitude practice is free and easy for a team. It is simply about systematically paying attention to what’s going right, seeing the contributions that others make in these good things, and expressing gratitude for them. Here are some simple things you can start doing immediately:

  • Make a point to watch for people going above and beyond in their work. When you see it, name it and thank the individual or team. It can be as simple as a sentence or two, but should include all the elements of a gratitude practice. For example:

You all hit that deadline despite some setbacks. Your tenacity made that possible and I’m grateful for your contribution to our group’s success.

Your ideas really got us going in the right direction. Without your research, the final product wouldn’t have been as good. Thank you.

In that meeting when I didn’t have the numbers they were asking for, you really came through. Thank you for having my back.

  • This week, send short emails to five people who have been a source of comfort, joy, wisdom, or support recently. Describe what they have done that makes you grateful, and how they have impacted your life. Be as concrete as possible. 
  • Every so often, include a gratitude sharing session on your leadership team agenda.

For more on cultivating an individual gratitude practice, take this quiz or read up on some great ideas here.

William Faulkner said “Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” 

Let your collective gratitude practices power your team through the end of 2020 and well beyond.