Years ago, I went through what some may call a career crisis. Without explanation, I was removed from my leadership position. My boss said I was being “reassigned”. She was reassigning me into a different role, and giving me three options I could choose. However, none were in leadership. I wasn’t being asked to lead a team again. Because of that, for me, this was a removal.
I was informed on a Tuesday, my birthday no less (I wish I were making that up), and told my last day was Friday. I had 24 hours to choose a position, inform my team, and then a communication would go out soon after announcing my reassignment. My replacement had already been chosen to take over my role on the following Monday.
I was humiliated, hurt, and angry. I felt betrayed. It was during a contentious time in the organization when my boss wanted to zig, and I was steadfast in zagging. There was one particular meeting where I disagreed and pushed back hard on an initiative she wanted me to execute. It was shortly after that when I received my notice.
Three weeks later, my now former boss met with me to see how I was doing. I asked her “Why was I removed?” I asked if it was because I wasn’t performing. No. She said I was a great performer. I asked if it was because people didn’t like working with me. No. She said people liked working with me. So, I asked again, why had I been removed?
She said it was because she wasn’t convinced I had her back. Meaning, she wasn’t sure I was in support of her vision and that I would do what it took to implement what she wanted for the company.
She was right. I didn’t. However, my ego prevented me from seeing it at the time.
This article is not about the millions of lessons I learned from this experience, such as how to influence effectively, navigate politics, and build strong partnerships at work. This article is about gratitude.
It took me a while to say this: I am so thankful for that experience.
Once I was able to shift shame and frustration into learning and gratitude, so much changed for me. I did this by hiring a coach. I never wanted to go through something like this again and needed to learn as much as I could from it. It was difficult and it took time but through reflection and getting outside perspective, it was as though space was created for gratitude to come forward.
Given the difficult and painful year 2020 has been and with Thanksgiving next week, it makes sense to explore gratitude.
This article will show how gratitude actually increases our well-being. The research is unquestionable, inviting gratitude into our life makes us healthier and more resilient. We'll then look at three activities you can try out for yourself to begin to feel the affects of this important practice.
Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury writes in The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief that “Gratitude may be a gesture or a group of kind words that we give or receive from others. But these simple exchanges of thankfulness go a long way in affecting our overall biological functioning – especially the brain and the nervous system."
Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and Director of Gratitude Works with UC Davis describes how gratitude releases toxic emotions. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.” If you’re grateful, then negative emotions are reduced which makes room for more positive emotion. Positive emotion is what keeps us healthy and productive.
In fact, in a large study conducted by Emmons and McCullough, “Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions."
Other findings from this same research showed people who kept gratitude lists for two weeks “reported better physical health including fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, and reduced congestion.”
The research related to gratitude and leadership is compelling as well. When someone is genuinely thanked for their work or contribution, they feel valued. Christine Riordan writes in Harvard Business Review, “…when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors, are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.”
It is clear, the benefits of gratitude are overwhelmingly positive. We are happier, healthier, and more productive when an authentic display of gratitude is a part of our life.
Authentic gratitude is key. Sometimes, comparison creeps into a gratitude practice leaving us feeling guilty or stalled. Such as "I should be grateful, other people are struggling so much more than I am." Or "Well, at least I have a job." Rarely does this elicit positive emotion. To be clear, this isn't gratitude, it is comparison.
Gratitude shifts focus from what is wrong or missing to what is present and helpful for you and only you, not anyone else.
Let’s now look at various activities to help us get there.
Exercises in gratitude
In some ways, displaying gratitude could not get simpler than saying thank-you. Though, if that is all that is said it could come off as hollow or fake. What gives gratitude the real positive punch is specificity and repetition. Describing exactly what you are appreciative of and why as well as engaging in the activity on a regular basis are what improve well-being.
Gratitude journal – Find a notebook and at the conclusion of each day write down three things that happened for which you are grateful. Nothing is too simple. I have kept a journal like this off and on for years and I love going back to it. Some days, I was grateful to have had time to grab a latte before a meeting. Other days I felt blessed by family and friends. Do this for two weeks. Odds are you will be happier as a result.
Thank you notes – Write to someone and describe how thankful you are to know them, work with them, or receive their services. Describe what they did and why it had a positive impact on you. Include how their actions or words improved your work or your life. Before sending it to them, read the thank-you note out loud to yourself. Notice how it made you feel. Then, slap that stamp on and drop it in the mail (or just hit ‘send’). Do this once or twice a week for a month.
“Five and Five” – Say thank you to five people in five days. Be specific about what they did and why you are grateful for it. Describe the impact they had on you. Better yet, plan it out in advance so that when you see the person, you are ready to say what you need to say. At the end of those five days, think about how that exercise made you feel.
Regarding number 2 and 3, when I was removed from my leadership position, I received lots of support and encouragement from my team and colleagues but one person wrote me a thank you note. He took the time to put words to paper. Those words buoyed me through that experience. I needed to hear from someone who worked directly with me that I was, indeed, a good leader.
While these exercises are intended to improve your well-being, they will make a huge impact on the other person as well. We rarely know what people are going through and even more so now that we are working remotely and physically removed from each other.
We don't need to belabor the difficulties of 2020. A pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, the economy, and the divisiveness in our political landscape have caused our well-being to decline this year. 2021 will be difficult as well but these simple exercises in gratitude can help us recover, heal, and move forward maybe a little better than before.
I wish everyone a safe and reflective Thanksgiving.
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.