The power of gratitude and acknowledgement in systems

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Cicero

As 2023 draws to a close, my first reaction is to reflect on what’s been achieved, what’s been celebrated and what’s been learnt. I am grateful for the privilege of the work I do and also like to reflect on who I’ve been: How have I shown up? Have I shown up consistently? When I didn’t, why was that and what can I learn from that?

There is nothing more human than not wanting to sit with these questions, and the emotions they provoke, yet this is what keeps us human, paradoxically – and this is how we grow as human beings, as opposed to human doings.

So where does this leave us, particularly as we move into an increasingly technology-oriented and hybrid workplace? We have an ancient fear of tech taking over our lives and our humanity, but it is really a means to meet business objectives; leaders must align their objectives with human objectives and outcomes, and use the alignment to build tech around them. “Tech humanist”, author, and founder and CEO of KO Insights, Kate O’Neill, and I discuss this issue, among many others, in our latest podcast on tech humanism (listen here). We talk about how we must invest in building trust and repairing division, interacting with people in person, and hearing and listening to others. Cicero tells us that ‘silence is one of the great arts of conversation’, and indeed, we need to take a step back to be present and listen to ourselves, our teams and the system, and consider: What do we have? What is happening? What questions do we need to be asking?

Grateful reflection: boosting your brain with gratitude

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these and is an explicit appreciation for what someone receives, whether tangible or intangible. In fact, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives through gratitude. In the process, they usually recognise that the source of that goodness lies at least partially, if not completely, outside themselves. Therefore, although the process is an ‘inside out’ one, being grateful also helps us to connect to the greater good, something bigger than us as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Gratitude can also be cultivated, just as we spend hours and hours setting out plans for healthy eating, exercise, meditation, walking in nature or ‘anything else that is good for us’. But it doesn’t work if we don’t change the system. The habit needs to live and work, and gratitude is a practice. Our neural tendency as human beings, however, is to forever want more and be constantly dissatisfied with what we have. We always want to be one step ahead of ourselves on ‘what we can do better’, but in so doing, we miss out on the joy of gratitude and the power of being in the present moment. This can be as simple as appreciating our lives as they are, appreciating ourselves as fallible human beings, or looking in awe at the expanse of nature, ocean or any of the other elements that make us feel small and humble.

Gratitude also plays an important role in fortifying us in times of adversity and strengthening our relationships. People who practice being grateful show significantly higher levels of happiness and psychological well-being, research shows. They are less depressed, less anxious, less stressed and report having fewer symptoms of physical pain. They have more success at work and have higher self-esteem. They build more meaningful and functional relationships, both at home and at work. Just two consecutive weeks of daily gratitude practice has lasting positive effects, for example:

·      Thank someone mentally. It helps just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank them.

·      Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.

·      Count your blessings. Pick a regular time to sit down and write about what went right or what you are grateful for, being specific about what you felt.

Your psychological well-being depends less on the things that happen to you and more on the things you pay attention to … Gratitude will shift your brain’s attention,” says Dr. Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. This is about creating habits, one habit at a time and leaning into the internal patterns of systems memory to create a systemic habit of thinking gratefully and acknowledging what we have – right here, right now, in the present moment. We need to change the system, starting with the inner system and radiating out to the external systems in which we live and work.

The year end is an ideal time to reflect on, be grateful for and acknowledge what we have. Cultivating gratitude this way enables our creative resilience, particularly in times of adversity and emotional turmoil. Practicing gratitude will act as a psychological booster, and can anchor us to the present moment. If I take it one step further, and it is a step I regularly take with the leaders and communities I work with, to actually voice our appreciation to one another and of one another, this is a powerful way to strengthen motivation, team cohesion and, more importantly, relationships. It can provide the resin to mend the broken fibres of a conversation or a discussion, just like plants use sap to regenerate and heal themselves. Sap is the plant’s life blood and there are two kinds: phloem sap, which is the more nutrient-rich form and flows from the leaves, bringing sugars and hormones to the parts of the plant that are nutrient hungry (the stem or the roots); and xylem sap, which carries soil nutrients from the root system to the leaves – the water is then lost through transpiration. We can liken gratitude to the phloem sap and acknowledgement to the xylem sap – they both constitute the life blood of human creativity, well-being and happiness, and must be practiced systemically to allow for the regeneration and repair of emotional bonds and a deep feeling of belonging and acceptance.

Research suggests that practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on the brain. It may lead to changes in neural pathways associated with reward and pleasure, which are foundational to happiness and can strengthen social bonds and relationships. When people feel appreciated, they are more likely to reciprocate positively, leading to a positive cycle of mutual support and happiness. Gratitude has been linked to lower levels of stress and higher levels of energy and motivation, and encourages individuals to shift their focus from ‘what they need to fix’ about themselves (i.e. self-deficiency and scarcity) to ‘the strengths they can build on and create with’ (i.e. gratitude and abundance). Being mindful of the present moment and appreciating the here and now is the starting point for letting transformation unfold and innovation emerge. Leaning into systems and into the emotional infrastructure of the system allows us to reprogramme and reframe what is prevalent in the system that stops us from doing this.

image : Lilia Daffi

Building human systems of acknowledgement

The system has a memory of ‘how we do things’ and of emotional charge and conflict. If I apply this to managing emotions, everyone has an example of such reframing, for instance, ‘I don’t want to’ or ‘I am not allowed to’ becomes looking at and appreciating what we have. As his Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us, “We need to learn to want what we have, not to have what we want, in order to get stable and steady happiness.”

So much goes unseen and unrecognised in the workplace, and suffering is internalised and continues — silently. The power of acknowledging the different patterns and reactions can lead to different, and more transformative leadership, both individually and collectively. A lack of acknowledgement leads to people feeling under-appreciated and gives rise to hidden resentment that has a huge impact at a human level. This resentment and emotional tension remain in the system and can become gangrenous for effective collaboration and innovation. Acknowledging these systemic patterns, as well as the individuals that live, work and breathe in them, is key. Acknowledgment plays a crucial role in fostering high-performing teams and systems. When team members and their contributions are recognised and appreciated, it can lead to a variety of positive outcomes, at individual, team and organisational level. Here are ten key aspects of the power of acknowledgment for high-performing teams and systems:

Motivation, morale and engagement: When team members feel that their efforts are seen and appreciated, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to perform at their best.

Retention and loyalty: When individuals feel valued and recognised, they are more likely to stay with the organisation, reducing turnover and fostering loyalty.

Innovation and creativity: Team members who feel appreciated are more likely to contribute ideas, take risks, and engage in creative problem-solving, which are essential for high-performing teams.

Growth mindset: When individuals receive recognition for their efforts, they are more likely to seek opportunities for learning and improvement, contributing to the continuous development of the team and its members.

Team cohesion: When individuals feel valued by their peers and leaders, it strengthens the bonds among team members and promotes a collaborative spirit.

Enhanced communication: Open and positive communication is facilitated by acknowledgment, encouraging transparent communication and constructive feedback, contributing to a healthier team dynamic.

Creative resilience: When teams face challenges, knowing that their efforts are recognised can help them persevere through difficulties creatively and maintain a positive outlook.

Leadership effectiveness: Leaders who actively acknowledge their team members build trust, strengthen relationships, and inspire confidence in the team’s direction.

Customer satisfaction: Recognising and appreciating the efforts that contribute to the satisfaction of external customers can lead to increased loyalty and positive feedback.

Adaptability and collaboration: Acknowledgment fosters an environment where team members are more willing to adapt to change.

Acknowledgement and gratitude are powerful tools for cultivating the conditions for people to thrive. Leaders and team members need to actively recognise and intentionally appreciate the contributions of their peers to create this collaborative and thriving work environment. This can be as simple as a five-minute round of positive appreciation before looking at more challenging questions and projects. It is a habit to be built developmentally and explicitly as a recognised leadership competence. The positive reinforcement from acknowledgment can create a culture that embraces change, is open to innovation and resilient in the face of uncertainty. Regularly incorporating gratitude into our lives, practices and team rituals can be a simple yet effective way to cultivate a more positive, inclusive and innovative workplace system. Acknowledgement is an ongoing practice that requires a change in habits; power comes from our own acknowledgement of what is happening in our lives and what we want to be acknowledged for.

Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, talks about gratitude having two parts. The first is an affirmation of goodness: people can learn to wake up to the good around them and notice the gifts they have received. The second is recognising that the source of this goodness rests outside of oneself — that we receive these gifts from other people, and sometimes from a higher power, fate, or the natural world. In other words, gratitude helps people realise that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others. Lisa Walsh, a happiness researcher and doctoral candidate in Social/ Personality Psychology at the University of California, Riverside explains that gratitude might not be an emotion that just makes people feel good; it appears to have social implications. Social connection is likely key to well-being, encourages prosocial behaviours, prompts us to pay back the kindness we have received and can also motivate us to make decisions that will strengthen our relationships.

The proven power of being kind to ourselves

Dr. Kristin Neff defines gratitude as recognising and acknowledging the gifts we are given. Starting from this place of abundance creates a very different lens in our telescope and allows us to concentrate on what we have before we creatively explore how to build on it. She distinguishes between tender self-compassion and fierce self-compassion. Tender self-compassion helps us to be kind and gentle to ourselves. It guides us to the realisation that we are only human and that we are bound to make mistakes, to experience failure and setbacks. This does not mean finding different ways to avoid accountability or give in, but to realise that we are all connected and to opt for care and collaboration (love) over compare and compete (fear). Fierce self-compassion empowers us to stand up for ourselves and to come from a place of courage and authenticity to protect who we are. For Dr. Neff it is a superpower, helping us to reinforce and stand firm to our boundaries. Fierce self-compassion is not about being arrogant, aggressive, selfish or hostile, nor is it about creating a ‘them vs us’ mentality. Both types of compassion stem from a place of creative competence, where our defensive reactions are not running us. We choose to intentionally embody both. This allows us to be courageous and loving, caring and empowered, to place clear boundaries and support our teams and communities.

Intentionally leveraging gratitude and leaning into this side of ourselves brings us closer to purpose and meaning and feeling grateful for what we are and what we have. A great catalyst for curiosity and creativity, this brings about transformation and offers the biggest breakthroughs, allowing us to discover our potential and to develop organically and creatively regardless of our status or job title. In fact, we often feel a disconnect between our work self and home self; many of us stay in a place of fear for our entire career, climbing a vertical ladder. The turning point is to acknowledge that fear. We must use acknowledgement as a lever, the first step to dismantling a lack of freedom, to acknowledge and be truthful to ourselves about what is really going on, i.e. are we showing up but not being authentic?

The challenge for leaders in this context is how to make the difference: they are blamed when things go badly yet miss out on acknowledgement and praise when things go well. We must make changes inside to bring about changes outside. It is not a leader’s job to make others happy or give answers. A leader can be good at talking and advising, but not so good at listening or helping employees make discoveries for themselves. Leaders can help by taking responsibility for the system and encouraging people to take responsibility for their actions. We need compassionate leadership that empathises with mental health, (inter-generational) trauma and self-criticism. A community must thrive for people to be happy, and everything we do for ourselves has a ripple effect for those around us. We are wired for social connection and gratitude and acknowledgement underpin the foundations of any healthy system.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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