Three Unexpected Benefits for Leaders in Practising One Specific Emotion Daily
By Padraig O’Sullivan, President of The Leadership Circle Asia Pacific
“…there has been a lot of talk about this next song…maybe too much talk…”
So said an infamous rock star as he went on to introduce one of their hits in a live album recorded at Red Rocks in the USA many years ago. The same can also be said for positive psychology (which some feel is humanistic psychology re-branded), one of the foremost fads in the field of psychology in the past decade.
But for naysayers, this “fad” has been found by researchers to provide measurable nuggets of insight that genuinely help us as people, and as leaders. These insights help us to understand ourselves better and provide tools to evolve our leadership impact.
One such area is that of gratitude – the idea of being grateful and practising it on a daily basis. It sounds simple, but I am here to tell you as a reformed cynic, there are so many benefits to making this a daily habit.
A few years ago, as part of my master’s degree in coaching psychology, I did an in-depth study on a range of psychological constructs including a construct on gratitude. Whilst it was very interesting at that time, I did nothing with the learning. However, over the last six months I have been proactively practising gratitude on a daily basis. I can attest to feeling happier, more satisfied, more focused, and have an overall sense of calmness that I have not before experienced. The practise of gratitude is not the only catalyst for this sense of well-being, but I believe it has contributed enormously.
Don’t just take my word for it, try it for yourself. Here are some studies that underline the unexpected benefits that come from its simple but consistent practice.
Increasing Self-Control or Regulation
Researchers, led by David DeStano et al at Northeastern University, conducted an experiment to study people’s ability to have financial control. The 2016 study showed participants who practised gratitude were more able to restrain their spending than those who did not. The latter group were more inclined to spend immediately for instant gratification. The inference is that those who are grateful have increased control.
As a leader, this concept appears to have a similar impact on managing emotions in reactive situations. This was evidenced in a recent research project with which was conducted by The Leadership Circle, called
Among other things, the study examined how exceptional leaders were able to manage their reactions with positive outcomes. Many of these leaders had a habit of practising gratitude. In the study, those exceptional leaders discussed how they had learned that daily or regular recording of what they were grateful for (including the leadership role they held) was instrumental in helping them remain calm during stressful periods.
Practising gratefulness appears to have a regulatory impact on maintaining self-control under circumstances where others might be losing theirs. As one leader relayed to me in that study, “reminding myself about what I am grateful for helps me to keep a calm head during chaos.”
An Easy Way to Motivate Others
In traditional heroic leadership literature, a leader needs to “motivate” others. As we know, this is much easier said than done. However, Grant and Gina published a study, called A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behaviour in 2010 demonstrating the motivational impact of “being thanked.” A fictitious letter of application for a specific job was used to seek feedback from study participants. Once the initial feedback was given to help this letter writer, they wrote a second letter to each study participant. In half of the letters they wrote a ‘thankful’ response, and in half, a neutral response. They found the rate of further help doubled by the group who were thanked compared to the neutral group. In follow up tests, the group who were not thanked were less likely to help another person than those who were.
When we do informal interviews and gather stakeholder feedback on leaders aimed at assisting them in their leadership impact, we occasionally hear comments on how great the leader is because they often take time to appreciate what others do. Unfortunately, I hear the opposite more often.
“Reminding myself about what I am grateful for helps me to keep a calm head during chaos.”
Developing A Sense of Satisfaction Can Lead to Better Sleep
In their book titled, “Thanks!” Emmons and McCullough ran a series of experiments, one of which involved adults with a debilitating disorder that caused muscular and joint pain. This disorder also caused nocturnal pain, resulting in a lack of sleep.
Two groups were enrolled in the study. The first group was asked to journal every day for 21 days on the things that day for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to record events that had happened that day. They received no instruction to focus on positive or negative impacts of those events.
Typically, the first group focused on events such as sunsets, flowers, blue skies, friendships, family connections, and being alive. After 21 days, the first group expressed an overall sense of optimism and satisfaction in general. The surprising benefit is they were sleeping better despite their physical pain.
In the Daily Habits of Exceptional Leaders study, mentioned earlier, it was also demonstrated that these leaders built up habits centred around being grateful for the roles they occupy, the chance to make an impact, and for their family support systems. They also reported having little difficulty with sleeping.
What to Do Next?
The simplest activity is to start recording what and/or whom you are grateful for every morning and night. Some people use a journal. Others, myself included, simply do this in my own head while I lie in bed before getting up or going to sleep. According to a 2011 article from Harvard Medical titled, In Praise of Gratitude, picking a number of things to be grateful for can be useful.
Give it a go. As a leader or leadership development practitioner it can only assist you in positive ways. As a practitioner, consider encouraging the practise with your clients. The benefits will surprise even the most hardened cynics.
So, what are you grateful for?
Padraig O’Sullivan is the President of The Leadership Circle Asia Pacific. Padraig’s reputation as a leading international business coach has been established with more than twelve years leadership and coaching experience encompassing Australia, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He is labeled “one of Asia’s top leadership experts.” Harnessing solid, global business acumen and entrepreneurial thinking, Padraig exhibits and delivers the critical understanding, character, expertise, and hands-on strategies to ensure clients achieve their transition and transformation goals.