Gratitude: a missing business capability?

It’s just over seven years since I last wrote about gratitude (November 2010). In response to those two blogs someone recommended me Angeles Arrien’s book Living in Gratitude, which I then went out and bought.

It’s a book of ‘gratitude practice’, ‘designed to carry you through a full calendar year, month by month.  Each month presents a theme and then offers reflections and practices to ‘foster increased understanding of how the chapter’s concepts are at work in your life and to inspire you to cultivate gratitude through action.’

During 2011 I worked through the book, and this year I’ve decided to do so again.  Why? Because I’m intrigued by the ongoing research that suggests that ‘gratitude and other positive emotions [bring] benefits ranging from personal and social development, to individual health and well-being, and community strength and harmony’ (Barbara Fredrickson).

Positive psychology researchers like Martin Seligman, Robert Emmons , Barbara Fredrickson and their colleagues in related behavioural and neuro sciences have broadened our knowledge of the value that feeling and expressing gratitude brings.

See, for example, Neural Correlates of Gratitude (2015) that sought to test the hypothesis ‘that that gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind. And notes that their findings ‘may provide important insight into the means by which gratitude is associated with improved health outcomes (Huffman et al., 2014), benefits to relationships (Algoe et al., 2008) and subjective well-being (Emmons, 2008).’ – all useful attributes in a workplace.’

Or another piece, Why a Grateful Brain is a Giving One on the neural connections between gratitude and giving – which suggests that ‘gratitude seems to prepare the brain for generosity.’

What effect has the research and the publicity around the benefits of gratitude had in the workplace? It seems, at best, minimal. ‘Research has also found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else: On a given day, only 10 percent of people say “thank you” to colleagues—and 60 percent of people report that they never or very rarely express gratitude at work.’

A 2017 Academy of Management Review article, (published online 2016) The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations the authors concluded, their well-researched paper,  saying:

Most people believe that gratitude is a desirable positive emotion (Gallup, 1999).  Nonetheless, there is a fundamental lack of attention to what gratitude “looks like” in organizations and to the organizational practices that enable employees to experience gratitude on a daily basis. As noted by McCraty and Childre (2004), “In the absence of conscious efforts to engage, build, and sustain positive perceptions and emotions, we all too automatically fall prey to feelings such as irritation, anxiety, worry, frustration, judgmentalness, self-doubt, and blame” (242). By making gratitude a fundamental part of the employee experience, leaders and managers can leverage the benefits of gratitude for employees and the organization as a whole.

This type of finding led to the Open Ideo/Greater Good Science Center to launch a challenge with a $40k prize for ideas on ‘How might we inspire experiences and expressions of gratitude in the workplace?’ (Their prototyping kit for this is useful irrespective of the challenge)

A challenge is one approach to encouraging gratitude in the workplace.  Another is to think of it as a business/organizational capability.  In my 2010 blogs on gratitude, I noted that ‘Although there’s a certain amount on ‘happiness’ in organizations. There’s very little that I’ve found so far on the topic of gratitude as an organizational capability.’  Having spent the last week working on a ‘map’ of business capabilities – a topic I’ve also written a blog about –  it’s striking that there are none expressing capabilities outside the realm of a business process.  For example, the ‘map’ that I’m looking at, under the broad business capability ‘People Management’, lists workforce planning, people & talent management, internal communications, and some others.  But doesn’t ‘people management’ need some capability around empathy, compassion, or gratitude?

The many definitions of business capability allow for capabilities that are more people and less process oriented.  Take this definition, which says:

A business capability (or simply capability) describes a unique, collective ability that can be applied to achieve a specific outcome. A capability model describes the complete set of capabilities an organization requires to execute its business model or fulfill its mission. An easy way to grasp the concept is to think about capabilities as organizational level skills imbedded in people, process, and/or technology.

A ‘complete set’ of capabilities could (should?) include some mention of the less documentable capability that is inherent in people.

Gratitude is one to consider, but not the only one.  Norm Smallwood and Dave Ulrich in their article Capitalizing on Capabilities discuss the key intangible assets:

‘organizational capabilities … You can’t see or touch them, yet they can make all the difference in the world when it comes to market value. … They represent the ways that people and resources are brought together to accomplish work. They form the identity and personality of the organization by defining what it is good at doing and, in the end, what it is.’

They say there is no magic list of these capabilities: their 11 include collaboration, learning, efficiency, and learning.

What’s your view on gratitude as a business capability?  Let me know.

(The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley, has an interesting ‘Grateful Organizations Quiz’) 

Image: An outlook of gratitude may lead to better health