Sharing a Grateful Future

Two kinds of gratitude: the sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.” – Edwin Arlington Robinson, Poet.

Research confirms the disquieting feeling many leaders have sensed about the minimal way gratitude and acknowledgment are sometimes experienced: Because it is the decent, rational thing to do, most of us were raised to say thank-you. But those of us who try to practice acknowledgment and grateful leadership know the dynamic is way more complicated than that.

Gratitude, it turns out, can also have a darker side. Social psychologist Ross Buck writes, “In the gratitude of exchange, the sender/beneficiary accrues “benefits” and the receiver/benefactor incurs “costs” in the context of an intricate web of exchange and obligation.” Not only does that sound complicated, but also calculating and cold. History is crammed full of episodes where acknowledgment denial or failure to express gratitude has led to horrendous acts and ferocious overreactions.

Those are extreme cases, but even low-level hurts and resentments undercut civility and mental wellness. When exchange gratitude dominates, the positives of generous gratitude are negated. Whole cultures, organizational or national are based on obligation. Such regressive environments make it discouragingly harder for any truly grateful leader to come across as authentic.

This is why the extraordinary 2016 book, Homo Prospectus, heralds a huge step forward in the practice of Grateful Leadership. Let’s explore that. Authors and Positive Psychology pioneers Martin E. P. Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister and Chandra Sripada bring a variety of disciplines including psychology, philosophy and psychiatry to an area of great importance to all of us yet conspicuously neglected in the extensive literature of psychology so far: the future. No surprise, really. Science tests hypotheses building conclusions in the present out of past data. In practice, diagnosis is the foundation and father of prognosis. We need all of that.

But what about tomorrow? On the face of the evidence, human beings have inconsistent instincts, unreliable reasoning abilities, wandering imaginations and a fairly low common social denominator. Yet these four imperfect capacities taken together and aimed forwards have produced thousands of years of steady advance and untold millions of lives full of joy and significance. Our species in particular, like many others, most notably our fellow primates, evolved to become ever better at future making. Despite some glaring disappointments, overall, we have not done that badly at prediction either. Hurrah for Homo Prospectus!

How we frame gratitude makes a big difference. Look backwards and it resembles debt repayment or a burden. How much more generous to pay it forward. More on this later…

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute of Learning 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.