How to Build a Better Team, and Self, Through Gratitude

Cole Harmonson

One of the most important things I do as a leader every day is create an environment where people grow so that our business continues to do the same. When your people are primed to grow and your environment does more than track revenue and numbers, your business will almost always follow suit.

Sure, there are times when “kick-ass” should absolutely be part of the approach. I’ve had a handful of employees over the years where my bag of tricks for inspiring productivity just didn’t get through and raising my voice (and my blood pressure) was the one thing that moved them in the right direction. In at least one of those cases, a heated conversation then led to an employee who was transformed – they became engaged, positive, and high-performing.   


But what’s the cost for that approach? My blood pressure aside, one study reports that 80% of employees stated that their boss was one of the top three reasons they were willing to leave, and 65% said they’d take a new boss over a pay raise.

Take a moment and read that last one again, then chew on this: data indicates that bad bosses cost the American economy a staggering $360 billion each year from lost productivity.

Bad bosses cost the American economy $360 billion each year

For me, those numbers speak more to leadership who consistently attempt to drive results through fear, anxiety tactics, or other negative emotions. While the employee I mentioned above was a great example of how a hard-line approach can work, it’s important to remember that I used it in a limited, very specific case. Far too often, and for too many leaders, I believe this is a default strategy and our cultures suffer.

I think gratitude is a better way. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve written about this idea before. I’ve talked about the top five reasons we should show gratitude, as well as a great example of why expressing gratitude works. What I haven’t really done is to dig into the ‘how’. How do we cultivate more gratitude in our lives?

I’d like to introduce you to what I call the “Gratitude Reticular Activator Exercise”. I know that’s a mouthful, but stay with me for a moment, please. For those not familiar with the Reticular Activating System (RAS), it’s a set of connected nuclei that connects the brainstem to the cortex. Its primary function is to regulate sleep-wake transitions, and it’s the filter for the mass of data we perceive from our environment to help us identify what’s important to focus on so we can ignore the non-essential data. Click the image below for a great primer video about RAS.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.52.13 PM

The really intriguing thing about this system is that we actually teach it what to filter out or let in by what we focus on.

Constantly think to yourself that you’re too shy? The RAS system will identify situations or stimuli that reinforce that notion.

Buy a red, shiny, and utterly awesome new corvette, and your RAS system will “help” you notice all the other red, shiny, awesome corvettes on the road around you because red, shiny, awesome corvettes are on the brain.

This is true for your thoughts ideas, and beliefs, too.  Believe you look good in that new dress?  You’ll notice the compliments and the approving glances from people who like how you look in that dress.  

And this works in business. Think no one wants to buy from you? You’ll show up with that belief and people won’t buy.  

The more ‘proof’ you have for your thought, idea, or conviction, the more you’ll believe it to be true, and in this way, our beliefs dance with our environment to reinforce themselves in our minds over and over again. Your brain will always look for reinforcement of your beliefs by recognizing “proof” from your environment.

What’s cool about this is you can leverage the RAS by intentionally choosing what you’ll recognize in your environment, and use it as an incredibly powerful tool for personal growth and transformation.  

How can you leverage this tool to deeply transform you and create substantial growth in your life and the results you manifest?

By creating space in your life for a consistent, focused effort on being grateful.

Here’s my challenge to you: first thing every morning for the next 42 days, write down ten things you’re grateful for. You’ll find that starting out is fairly easy. When I started, my list included things like:

  • My family
  • M health
  • My business partner
  • My team
  • My dog (he’s awesome)

Most of us can fill a page or two with these top-of-mind examples. What’s really powerful for training your RAS is to dig deep and write down ten NEW things that you haven’t listed previously.

Over the years, I’ve found that I now include things like clean air, water, and food in my lists. For us, they’re the little things. I’ve traveled to many places where that’s not the case, and each time I see people struggling for these fundamental necessities, I’m reminded of how much we take them for granted.

You’ll find that this consistent, focused effort around identifying opportunities for gratitude will have a remarkable effect – you’ll actually be on the look-out for things to be grateful for.

When you’re capturing the things you’re grateful for, I’d suggest you consider the following:

  • It’s less about what you write, and more about what you experience and feel. Identifying things you’re grateful for (mentally) tends to come fairly quickly. When I’m doing this exercise, I close my eyes, put my hand on my heart, and wait for a feeling to kick in before I put pen to paper. By waiting a beat and letting my mind synch with my heart, I know the things I’m identifying come from a deeper place.
  • Connect with something specific. In other words, don’t rush through the exercise. Are you grateful for your friend?  Or are you grateful because that friend helps you connect with people, get in touch with your inner child, or reminds you about about the value of living a healthy life? Be specific.
  • Don’t forget the negative. We all go through difficult times. You’ll find that these can be amazing springboards for gratitude, and you can be grateful for your general health when you’re sick, or recognize new opportunities when others don’t pan out. You can also use the bad times as a contrast for where you are now.

Training your RAS requires thought, intent, and practice, but it can be deeply transformative. When your RAS has been cued up for gratitude and you’ve formed a habit of looking for opportunities to express appreciation, your performance – whether it’s leading teams or developing risk assessments or following-up on a lead – can’t help but reflect that state of mind.

“Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier.” ~ Sheryl Sandberg

And this doesn’t just apply to your work performance. This practice will positively transform your entire life!  A recent transcript of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Berkeley commencement speech, captures the importance and power of gratitude more beautifully and poignantly than I could hope to achieve.

Let me know what you think – especially after you’ve given this a try!

 

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