How Grateful Leadership Can Promote Transformative Change

The Gratitude Connection

How Grateful Leadership Can Promote Transformative Change

By Donald Officer


Leadership is not a title; it is about impact, influence and inspiration. Healthy cultures invite everyone to be a leader.     

                                     –Participant in 2015 Positive Workplace Culture ThoughtExchange

Acts of authentic acknowledgment or gestures embodying grateful leadership do not end with one-time heartfelt responses. Extraordinary as those moments can be to experience or behold, they have an even more extraordinary potential to ignite expanding transformational cycles. This is the message Deborah Connors proclaims and documents in her 2018 book, A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.


The unacknowledged worker is a disengaged worker. This is a problem of some size. In recent polls Gallup estimates levels of disengagement among American workers hovering around 70 %. Across the developed world disengagement is more prevalent than it ever used to be. Gone are the days when a few sharp words from the foreman or the nudging of coworkers on the line would fine-tune a lackluster effort. As readers of this column will appreciate, today’s work is much more complicated.


In general, we are expected to be self-starters as the job post cliché would have it. And there’s another funny thing which might just be anecdotal, but I fear not. We don’t simply disengage in a motivational sense. If you picture the organization as a machine, you’ll notice some employees, like some cogs, are not meshing with the process at all. They may look busy pushing paper or making noise while really functioning in a kind of social vacuum that scarcely moves the enterprise forward at all despite the sound and fury. Others grind away slowly in obscure corners hoping to be ignored by management. It’s relative of course; we all take unscheduled downtime which might be inconsequential, forced by an emergency or a by-product of disorganization.


Gratitude, as psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly appreciating, is closely associated with the meaning, persistence, and seriousness of what we do. Like it or not, even a disagreeable, loner might be doing something of social consequence regardless of his or her apparent isolation. What connects us (or makes us feel awkwardly disconnected) is culture. In A Better Place to Work Connors simply but adroitly diagrams the power of culture as it affects the individual and drives today’s interactive workplace practices.  In its aggregate, organizational culture moves the individual worker in either a downward spiral towards burnout or in an upward spiral towards high-performance peak engagement. Collectively, both consciously and unconsciously, we generate cultures where the individual languishes or flourishes.


Connors asks, “What leadership practices can you start today to create a positive upward flourishing spiral in your team or organization?” Her first suggestion is for the leader to start a gratitude practice. Yet, as she discovered, this is not so easy. Many positive psychology practitioners including the author, have observed that unless you persist, reflecting repeatedly on one’s blessings can soon become demotivating, even when using reinforcing prompts like gratitude journals. But after a couple of weeks, Connors had a breakthrough, she associates with a deepening awareness of what really mattered in her work.


On day 15 of her gratitude practice, Connors started to reframe her approach and soon found the resentment, procrastination and subtle resistances holding her back from full engagement melting away. This personal experience of struggling to find the source of her own resilience would prove invaluable in developing Deborah’s confidence and I would say belief in herself as a grateful, transformational leader. She would need all that. This book serves multiple ends and meets many commitments. In 1997 she launched the original Canadian Health Work and Wellness Conference which would become The Better Workplace Conference. She persisted for 17 years attracting over 600 speakers to share stories and possibilities. Her obstacles were many along the way with progress in the field sometimes moving at a glacial pace as emerging ideas about workplace wellbeing were buffeted and redirected by the larger society.


To understand this book, we need to see it is an expression of deep gratitude to the many who helped materially and morally to keep the conference going as well as a remarkable repository of tools and resources to build flourishing workplaces. Connors makes clear just how many and in how many ways so many people contributed to the legacy of the conferences she led and the record of those inspirational gatherings which A Better Place to Work represents. Typically, authors include a page or two of acknowledgments at the end of their texts. Deborah Connors begins with a dedication to more than 25 individuals who literally spoke to conference themes. She follows this up with the story of all who made the writing of the book possible in the ways they did. She calls these pages “Gratitude.”


Connors conducted in-depth interviews with ten “inspiring experts” she lists in Chapter 1. Each of these thought leaders is showcased one by one with single page bios at the end of the chapter she believes that individual most influenced. Throughout the body of the book, she attributes insights to the expert, colleague or conference contributor who first shared them with her. Her aim not only reflects a pronounced generosity but also goes to the main purpose of A Better Place to Work. This book is a handbook to becoming an active grateful leader not only of individual members of your team or network but also supporting the culture and by extension the organization itself to which you belong.


This book proceeds from the basics of how to treat your co-workers and walk in their shoes. ” Better Way” and “Engage in Practices.” The following chapters proceed to offer transformational strategies. “Positively Deviant” and “Organize Positively” respectively. Positivity, spotlighted by Barbara Fredrickson over a decade ago, is based on research yet to be digested by the mainstream let alone our organizations and other sub-cultures. At the heart of her work was the acceptance that perfection being universally elusive we all need to adopt a growth rather than a perfectionist mindset to succeed and flourish. This recognition has probably kept Connors going despite the counter-currents of discouragement in recent decades.


To resist the pernicious undercut of contagious negativity, Connors promotes team building that emphasizes psychological health. Chapters offer grassroots tools to help realize a vision that develops paths to workplace improvement: “Shift Yourself First,” “Ignite Positivity,” “Teams,” “Inspire Psychological Health,” “Vision” and “Emergent Process” are titles of chapters devoted to this nurture of positive organizations. In her final chapter, “Best Advice & Tools” the author recaps the importance of the pillars that support the process she has watched evolving.

It’s difficult to take exception to the tools and techniques Connors, her team and network have tried and tested over nearly two decades. Nonetheless, a theorist might see grey areas or contradictions in the multipronged processes reflected in the book. The author’s answer to this concern might be countered by two principles in particular: 1) Deferring to local front line practice; and 2) Honoring the pioneers and mentors of better workplace practices that promote cultural transformation. Both intentions are explicit in the format and implicit on every page of the book. Organizational “neighborhood” circumstances naturally vary in many ways so values or methods that might gain a positive traction in one company or location receive little uptake in another. Respecting the second principle, strong leaders in the drive to improve working life will naturally form their commitments from different experiences and evolving convictions.


Another principle driving her own style is inherent in how Deborah Connors herself has learned from the conference presentations of diverse individual speakers. Her own mentors reflect a balance between her Canadian roots and successful outreach to international exemplars. Among her models are Dr. Robert E. Quinn, Professor Emeritus of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan; Dr. Michael West, Head of Thought Leadership at the King’s Fund, London; Mary Ann Baynton, Program Director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and a chair of the committee responsible for the development of the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – the first in the world of its kind; and Dr. Linda Duxbury a world-renowned expert researcher on work-life balance who led extensive studies still changing organizational conversations – her work on role overload is now recognized as a growing risk factor in modern workplaces.


Impressive credentials, all of them. And these authorities are only a partial sampling from the large pool of compassionate world-class talent Deborah’s network has created. There can be little doubt that her Conference and now her book have changed the workplace improvement game in Canada and increasingly throughout the developed world. She has earned her credentials as a grateful leader of leaders by showcasing dozens of positive practices that build virtuous upward spirals and are forging a worldwide community of flourishing workers and workplaces.


This book does not read like an entertaining or inspirational narrative like a novel, case study or biography. That kind of material is certainly there to illustrate points although it is presented in ways that clarify optimum use of the toolkit to energized readers looking to actually start or catalyze cultural transformation in their organizations. The book is not written for management consultants or staff advisors although it would be a rich reference for such professionals as it would be for HR administrators, project managers and others seeking to support thriving networks anywhere. However, as Connors repeats at every opportunity, it is precisely aimed at becoming a source guide for leaders and change agents passionate about turning their workplaces into better places where everyone can flourish knowing they are acknowledged and appreciated.




What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith 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.