What a month this has been. The pages of the newspapers are filled with fear—Italian bonds at record highs, congressional leaders locked in a battle to solve the debt crisis, persistent unemployment and businesses sitting on hoards of cash but afraid to spend it because of a “lack of confidence.” In the United States, Thanksgiving will happen this Thursday (Canadians had theirs a month ago). I’d like to argue that gratitude, the art of being thankful and focusing on what is working, creates a better life, better companies and better society. Gratitude and a focus on what IS going well might be just the prescription we need.
I was thinking of the words Franklin Roosevelt spoke at his first inaugural address in 1933 “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But few people have read the entire address. Roosevelt reminded people that in spite of the present financial situation it was important to remember that America had weathered other great challenges and that the present situation was “thankfully only about material things.” He went on “there is no plague of locusts, that nature still offered its bounty and human ingenuity multiplied it.” In tough times it is always important to remember what we still have to be grateful for. Focusing on what we have creates confidence and confidence drives action.
The overwhelming significance of gratitude takes many forms. When I interviewed older people for my book The Five Secrets, again and again these wise elders told me about the importance of focusing on what we are grateful for rather than what we don’t have. Gratitude is a discipline that if honed over time, changes the way we see our lives. It can take the simple form of devoted time every day to list that for which we are grateful.
In a company, gratitude is equally critical. One of my clients sent out a memo to all leaders at the beginning of the financial challenges of 2008 saying “we are going to go through a difficult period and the victories may be smaller, which is why it is critical that we work even harder to celebrate every success.” Many companies today are in permanent “gloom mood” which not only saps morale but diminishes the feeling of being on a “winning” team which is such an important element of a highly engaged workplace.
Just this week I spent time with one of my favorite clients in Kentucky and they practice what they call “positive deviance” which is finding out where things are really working in an organization and seeing what we can learn from the positive deviants! What a great concept. Instead of an obsession with finding negative deviance (low engagement teams, poor quality, problem associates) go out and identify the positive outliers-hold them up, dissect their success and help others learn from it. That is why for my new book I went out to find stories of people who had stepped up, to remind people that while we sit around and complain about apathy we forget that millions of people are stepping up this very moment to make things better.
Finally, let’s go back for a moment to the economic situation we now find ourselves in. As Roosevelt said in his inaugural address we cannot gloss over the hardships that many are facing, but we cannot forget how much we still have going for us. The earth continues to provide its bounty, we have millions of creative people trying to solve the problems we face, and we have faced challenges before (and arguably more difficult ones at that). Italy, for example, has the third largest economy in Europe, an unemployment rate and debt lower than the United States, and yet simply for lack of confidence (an obsessive tendency to focus on what is not working) -fear itself is creating a crisis of epic proportions.
Thanksgiving may be just what we need right now. Not a one day turkey feast but a fundamental reorientation towards gratitude. We have so much good still around us. Maybe if we focused more on what is still working, we might have the courage to fix what has to be fixed.
Be well and do good work,