Weaving business and people together

On gratitude.

May 3rd, 2017



In the last few months I’ve been discovering a new depth of gratitude for the good and simple things in life: family and friends, the changing of the seasons, the joys of working, the surprising goodness of the average human being, whatever the global context. In part this re-examination, or even re-discovery, of gratitude is due to my own ageing process, which brings with it the disturbing, deepening acknowledgement of the reality that I am not immortal. On top of that, when good friends and colleagues are tragically struck, far, far too young, by terminal illness, we must find our own way of making sense of life. Mine has been to make time to notice and be grateful for the small, good and great things, and on a bigger scale, to honour my friends’ lives by trying to make my own continuing life count in some way. I should not waste the gift that will be taken, untimely, from them, but for some random, mysterious and maybe unfair reason, is still mine.

Along the way, I’ve found myself reflecting on gratitude itself. It’s only worth anything if it is freely given, from deep inside the individual. An expectation of gratitude for something given has a toxic effect on a relationship. It can create anger and resentment, in both giver and receiver. If we want gratitude, then perhaps we should have a good look at our motives for giving in the first place. Is it from a sense of obligation? Do we have a need to be acknowledged which could be met in some other way? Is there something we want to say to the other? Is there a ‘hidden deal’ that we expect them to understand? Do we want them to recognise our place in their world? Is there something else we could do to meet that need explicitly? If we’re given something, tangible or intangible, that feels inappropriately large, it doesn’t usually result in delight: it results in discomfort and imbalance in the relationship. If we receive something unexpectedly small, can we find gratitude for the intention behind it and get over the ‘thing’? It gets even more complicated when we give time, attention, and emotional investment and start to feel that this is unbalanced. An Irish colleague of mine used to complain that the Irish do all the ‘emotional labour’ in relationships with ‘the Brits’, bringing centuries of appeasement, resentment and battles into a simple conversation. Whether that’s actually true or not is irrelevant. It was certainly a real factor for him.

Gratitude is a strong and strange force at play in the workplace. Organisations are human systems, and our actions and their impact are not emotionally neutral. If we offer something outside of the normal expectations of our role, what are our motives? Do we do it for the love of it or do we expect to be noticed for our effort? When we mentor someone and invest a lot of time in them, are we doing this because we think it’s part of what we want to give to our organisation, or because we think it’s a ‘should’? Do we expect additional loyalty in return? If we give our loyalty to an organisation, do we implicitly expect that loyalty, and not just our performance, to be acknowledged and rewarded in tangible ways, and what happens when we’re disappointed?  We probably all know someone who seethes because their loyalty has not resulted in promotion. Do we expect someone to publicly support us if we have supported them, and what do we do if we don’t get that support? If we offer someone a supplier contract, can we expect more than behaviours which allow a professional delivery of the work and prompt payment, and how do we talk about what that means to each of us?  We don’t always examine our motives for doing things; perhaps we don’t make the time or we shy away from it because it might uncover something that we find hard to look at, or it might uncover the requirement to have a conversation which takes us outside of the normal conversational routines at work. That’s really not easy for many of us to do. Much easier and more familiar, sometimes, in the short term, to quietly smoulder at our efforts being insufficiently noticed. (Confession: I know this, being somewhat of an expert in the martyred stance.)

A systems approach to understanding life and organisations includes the notion of Exchange. Giving, taking, and the consequences of both matter a lot in ensuring a free flow of energy in the systems we belong to. Some elements of exchange are legal, explicit and contracted: labour for money, safe-guarding for taking risks. Some are more complex, subtle and negotiable and can shift in response to context: public acclaim for devotion beyond the call of duty, a great party when you leave an organisation, an invitation to join a partnership. At a tangible level, companies can fall into giving massive bonuses, which eventually become seen as normal rather than ‘extra’ or performance-related, and initial gratitude mutates unpleasantly into entitlement and sulkiness. Sometimes thing feel unfair. Sometimes things actually are unfair. Sometimes we take more than others, sometimes we give more. If we can’t understand and accept the inevitable, awful reality of this, we can get very ‘stuck’ in our relationships, whether professional or personal. If we don’t reflect on our feelings about an ‘exchange’ we can run into trouble. Our energy and commitment can get blocked in some way. What we feel about an exchange can vary wildly too: early experience teaches us our own family rules about exchange, what’s o.k. to give, what’s o.k. to take. Some of us, at some points in our lives, can tolerate a workplace which lacks humanity in exchange for an inflated salary which helps us on our own, legitimate, private road. Others of us find that no amount of dollars can compensate for the soul-destroying experience of being treated as a replaceable work unit. It isn’t the exchange we want or need, and we don’t experience the energising warmth of gratitude.

But back to my own gratefulness. One of my clients has a post-signature quote which includes the words ‘an attitude of gratitude’. Whilst I wince at the cheesiness, I’ve found it’s been life-changing for me to be mindful, on a daily basis, of the immense gift of simply being alive. Most unpleasantness is momentary. All things pass. We can rage, but all things pass.

This particular blog is both inspired by and dedicated to my much-loved friend, professional colleague and business partner of 20 years, E O’D, whose grace, courage and astonishing focus on forgiveness and gratitude, as he faces his last weeks, are immeasurable gifts. Thank you, and go well, old friend.

  1. Thank you for insight on Gratitude <3

    by: Lucy Virnot on May 8, 2017 at 10:59 am
    • thanks Lucy, glad it meant something to you. Anne

      by: Anne Owen on May 22, 2017 at 10:08 am


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