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Thriving in Tough Times: The Power of Gratitude in Leadership

Gratitude is a leadership superpower. In a challenging economy or stress-filled workplace situation, things become negative quickly. Leaving most trying to survive the day and living weekend to weekend. What was a minor issue becomes a critical concern. After a while, the added complexity of decisions and increased stress harm performance and well-being. Evidence suggests that most employees are looking to leaders for help, and most leaders are feeling used up at the end of the day, a 12% increase from two years prior. This is where the power of gratitude makes all the difference. But gratitude often gets forgotten in tough times. To restore a positive mindset, use gratitude. Here is why it's a difference maker for thriving in tough times and three tips for building a habit of gratitude.

Why gratitude matters

Gratitude is a positive emotion that brings balance to a negative mindset. Many studies link gratitude with positive personal benefits, such as:

  • Improved health

  • Increased happiness

  • Decreased anxiety

  • Decreased depression

Likewise, evidence suggests that feeling appreciated is linked to well-being and employee performance. Those who feel valued by their leader are more likely to report higher levels of:

  • Physical and mental health

  • Engagement

  • Job satisfaction

  • Intrinsic motivation

The following short video explains the science behind why gratitude matters.

If you immerse yourself in the daily news, the future of work appears dire – supply chain constraints, geopolitical conflict, inflation, and historic labor shortages are projected to persist. Looking ahead to next year, a soft recession is a real possibility.

Employees are stressed out, and the costs of workplace stress and burnout are high. To quantify workplace stress costs, a recent study found that workplace stressors in the United States account for more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs.

The Mayo Clinic found that the personal and organizational side effects of stress include:

  • broken relationships

  • substance abuse

  • depression

  • decreased customer satisfaction

  • reduced productivity

  • increased employee turnover

Stress is an emotional contagion. Research has demonstrated that co-workers can spread stress within a workgroup. For example, someone on your team who feels down enters a meeting. Within a few minutes, the entire team's emotions mimic their behaviors and non-verbal expressions.

The following short NPR video discusses how emotions like stress are contagious.

What does leadership gratitude look like?

According to the American Psychological Association, gratitude is a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit given by someone or a fortunate happenstance.

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

As a leader the practice of gratitude consists of an affirmation of goodness in others. A habit of gratitude involves your ability to acknowledge the good and a sense of thankfulness. Empathy, kindness, and love are closely related to the virtue of gratitude.

Effective leadership is more than making someone do something. It is about the selfless influence of others and the ability to bring out the best in others.

Here is a good video from gratitude expert Robert Emmons that addresses what gratitude means.

We can all cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Evidence suggests that it is best to start by making gathering and giving gratitude easy. Here are three tips for building a habit of gratitude.

Gratitude Habit Tip #1: Stop. Look. Go.

The following video presents how practicing gratitude begins by getting quiet, looking through our senses, and then taking the opportunity presented.

Gratitude Habit Tip #2: Make it easy

When building a habit it is consistency and not intensity. Have you got an app for that? is a tool that makes getting started easy. I have used this tool for a few years and found it helpful for building an attitude of gratitude. The app will send you a simple daily prompt asking you about what you are grateful for, and it stores your responses in a private online journal.

What you record can be as simple as what comes to your mind or a purposeful reflection on something good that happened that day and why you felt good. I find the reminders sends of what I was grateful for from my journal very encouraging, and a way for me to track over time.

Gratitude Habit Tip #3: Give it away

Giving gratitude makes you happier. After listing what you are grateful for each day, take a few moments to practice giving gratitude. Not only will reflecting and journaling what you are thankful for make you happier but giving appreciation will multiply the positive effects on your emotions. Simply send a thank you note or, better yet, deliver the thank you note or say thank you in person.

How important do you think gratitude is for you and your team as you look ahead to what experts suggest will be another challenging new year, and what is the real gratitude challenge for you?


Adecco. (2021). Resetting normal: Defining the new era of work 2021 [PDF]. The Adecco Group.

APA. (2012). APA survey finds feeling valued at work linked to well-being and performance.

Goh, J., Pfeffer, J., & Zenios, S. (2016). The relationship between workplace stressors and mortality and health costs in the United States [PDF]. Management Science.

Harvard Medical School. (2021). Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health Publishing.

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(1), 112-127.

The Gratefulness Team. (2021). What is Gratitude? A Network for Grateful Living


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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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