Is it Time For a Gratitude Checkup?

By Donald Officer

Work on ensuring that your gratitude is always experienced by people as authentic and that you don’t slip into being seen as obsequious or insincere

  ~ Alex Linley, Janet Willars, Robert Biswas-Diener – The Strengths Book: Be Confident, Be Successful and Enjoy Better Relationships by Realising the Best of You

Yes, that’s right, even the clearly essential habit for every grateful leader, namely expressing gratitude when it is due, is not always received as intended. “Wait a minute,” you might be tempted to respond, “I have a lot on my plate. Surely, these people know I really mean it!”

Much has been said, written and tweeted about how overloaded so many of us are in these frantic times. A couple of weeks ago I read a book called Because Internet in which the author speculated how much the language of messaging and other brief written forms are being altered to express the subtler feelings, once intoned through spoken word or the intricate overly scribed phrasing our ancestors somehow found time to spell out. It never has been that easy. Common throw away wording once accepted at face value has been co-opted to suggest irony or sarcasm. Take “OK” for instance. Some people say it should now be read as a synonym for the bratty teenager’s “Whatever.” Write “Kk” if you really mean it.

Whenever I scroll down through my Monday morning in-basket overflowing with messages of doubtful or uncertain importance, I’m reminded of a graphic phrase a co-worker of mine repeated whenever he was confronted with ridiculous overload: “Gee momma, I can’t dance and hold the baby too!” So when someone truly extends themselves beyond the norm and really does you a genuine kindness hidden in the pile of incoming, can you see how easily your routine “Thanks” could really boomerang?

Decades ago when we were expected to send out seasonal greeting cards to all and sundry, I remember a conversation I had with a well-known communications scholar on the subject of the message the custom conveyed. “The card itself says nothing.” He explained. “Not getting one speaks volumes.”

Ryan Niemiec is the education director at the VIA Institute (Values in Action Inventory) on Character. The VIA Institute researches the persistent strengths we all tend to show and shares its insights through surveys and analyses available to the public. We rely on the consistency of those around us relying on the dependability everyone demonstrates through persistent helpful behaviors and qualities. Our character strengths, so often taken for granted, add hugely to the success and value of our lives as individuals and together as communities. His recent book Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners is described by positive psychology founder Martin Seligman as “The GO-TO book for building character.”

Niemiec is also a blogger for “Psychology Today,” the respected trade publication for both general and professional readers. This November his column, “How to Avoid Mindless Gratitude” was posted. According to organizational researcher Robert E. Quinn we are all hypocrites and introspection forces us to admit it. Quinn uses this stark admission to help him work on his own character strengths especially in his dealings with others. He recommends this practice to anyone who wants to grow as a person. Come to think of it, what a wonderful way to approach your gratitude diary or journal.

But the off-hand thanks Ryan Niemiec refers to is not usually intentional hypocrisy, although it might slip into that over time. Rather, unconsidered murmurings of appreciation are more likely prompted by simple mindlessness. Franklin Roosevelt, bored with the endless ceremony of receiving lines is said to have started mouthing outrageous things to his official guests like, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The overwhelm of the occasion prevented everyone he spoke to this way from noticing. Socially acceptable mindlessness.

Gratitude, as we say consistently at the Center for Grateful Leadership, needs to be authentic or it will not be believed and will not make a positive difference. If you wish to express grateful leadership be sure you intend it. Niemiec describes it this way in his blog post. “Mindful gratitude means to not take things for granted. To see the kind act or thoughtful gesture and to acknowledge it. Mindful gratitude is relationship building.” Robert Quinn through his research goes even further in observing that successful leadership depends on those relationships.

Ryan Niemiec also goes into the consequences of shallow gratitude. At best, it maintains the status quo, at worst it is felt like a slap in the face. Gratitude is always a two-way process. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen what happens when gratitude is not properly received. “It’s OK” or “Sure” with a casual smile is just as much a slap in the face to the giver of an acknowledgment as indifferent delivery is to the recipient. It may even camouflage or convey passive aggression. Couples therapists warn that this form of casual ingratitude in a close relationship is a slippery slope foreshadowing contempt, the surest sign of impending divorce.

Mindful gratitude on the part of everyone involved (and probably those watching too) is vital if our relationships, our organizations, even our institutions are to remain intact and the people in them to grow. We all need to be heard and acknowledged. Building relationships matters; building character matters. Most particularly, as the late Chris Peterson, an early founder of positive psychology and character study framed it and made his motto: “Other people matter.”

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.