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How Authentic Gratitude Can Help to Build High Performing Teams

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Imagine the scenario. You’ve put your maximum effort into a work project; you’ve gone over and above your ordinary responsibilities; you’ve put the hours in and you’ve got the result. What would you like the response of those around you; of your peers and indeed your management to be? It’s not unreasonable to suggest that they might express their thanks for a job well done.

Does this always happen? And even when it does, does it always feel genuine?

If you don’t get the expression of gratitude or if it seems disingenuous, how would this make you feel? Would that make you more or less likely to throw yourself into the next project in the same way?

I would suggest that it probably feels uncomfortable, even emotionally painful, and that seen through a prism of cause and effect, the more you feel like this, the less likely it is you’ll over extend yourself in the future.

This might seem self-evident but actually the science and the evidence help to explain why this is the case.

Rock (2008) highlighted the importance of certain factors in our social interactions in his SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness). Immediately you could see the relevance of some of these elements to displaying authentic gratitude in a work context. Anecdotally it’s easy to recognise that having your role, work and position respected (Status) is important. To bring this to life, take the converse view and ask yourself how pleasant it feels to be ignored, disrespected or ostracised.

Apply the same consideration to the concept of fairness. How does being treated unfairly make you feel; whether that’s in regard to decisions taken in work context or around gratitude and appreciation for your efforts. The reality is that Rock’s work is not just based on common understanding of how we interact but ties these concepts to how our brain, our thinking machine, functions.

Looking at how our wonderful thinking machine functions, we understand that nature has given us a 24/7 threat detection system based around our limbic system. This system responds to real and perceived threat in our environment seeking to move us away from threat and towards opportunity. Along with this reaction both psychological and chemical (with the release of stress hormones), we create emotional memories which we use to help inform our decisions the next time we encounter a similar scenario.

So brain functioning is showing us why gratitude and appreciation are important elements in a work context. Not following through with appropriate feedback and ensuring that has appropriate authenticity (that it’s relevant and believable) can elevate stress response mechanisms, which over time can cause people to approach interactions in a defensive mode. How could you explain all of this in one word; well, how about … Trust.

Trust may be something we take for granted, or maybe it’s a concept we think we understand.  Actually in the world of human interaction, it’s a complex and multi-faceted concept. Having the social interactive elements of Rock’s SCARF model fulfilled can help to build trust; however, if these elements are not present or are not perceived to be, then mis-trust can develop along with associated stress and defence reactions.

Imagine a team where people distrust one and other. What’s the impact? People psychologically move away from one and other, fall into silos and innovation and collaboration suffers – the antithesis of a high performing environment.

Indeed if you were to define the elements of a high performing team, trust would be right at the core of it, as can be seen in Lencioni’s (2002) work on the 5 dysfunctions of a team. Lencioni recognised trust as being the foundation of high performing teams. Without trust; communication, accountability, commitment and results focus can all suffer.

So here’s my challenge to leadership and each of you as colleagues and peers. Alongside all of the project management, the budgets and business plans, build in a culture of authentic gratitude and appreciation. You’ll help to develop trust as a dynamic in your teams and in your leadership style. You’ll help to minimise limbic centred stress and defence reactions. You’ll help people feel more connected, understood and accepted; which will meet needs for Status, Relatedness and Fairness. From there you’ll be able to build that high performing team environment which stretches each other, connects across your teams and builds genuine collaboration.

Actions like recognising effort, expressing gratitude and showing genuine appreciation to others might seem small in isolation but if they form part of an authentic and robust culture, the impacts can be huge.

World Wellbeing Week 2024

June 24 – June 30

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