Leading with Gratitude

Many people agree that our culture is growing more impatient, selfish, disrespectful and ungrateful. Those who haven’t noticed are likely not bothered, and may be contributing to these disturbing tendencies. Not exactly glowing statements on our day and age.

These attitudes and behaviors are also visible in every corner of the working world, as organizations struggle to keep employees engaged, loyal, civil and productive. Employees have no difficulty pinpointing the things that annoy them, while taking little time to reflect on those that please them. A displeased workforce yields low returns on the skills and experience invested in it.

Traditionally, leaders have been responsible for setting the tone and correcting a culture. However, those who portray disturbing behaviors can expect their people to live them out as well. Leaders who can exhibit positive behaviors make a tremendous difference in how their people respond, relate to each other and enjoy their work. Positive behavior depends on a positive mindset, and the cornerstone of it all is gratitude.

Gratitude vs Ingratitude

Gratitude is the appreciation for being a benefactor of something that has made your life better. It’s also a recognition that either you didn’t cause it or deserve it. Gratitude is a thankfulness for what you have, who you are or what opportunities lay before you. It stirs satisfying feelings that are promising, optimistic and calming.

Leaders with gratitude know they’ve been given something from a source bigger than themselves, causing a favorable condition with a lasting effect. This creates a positive mindset that can’t be concealed. That mindset fashions a beneficial outlook, which steers helpful actions. This is the best life enhancing tool for leaders and those they lead.

According to executive coach Christine Comaford in her 2017 Forbes article, Great Leaders have an Attitude of Gratitude – Do You?, a grateful mindset offers leaders a positive emotional reserve that can be tapped when tough situations arise. This is a great tool to thrive under pressure, to be motivated to overcome challenges. Alternatively, ingratitude leads to negative emotions that drag a spirit down. A negative focus doesn’t inspire satisfaction, ideas, solutions or helpful decisions.

Grateful leaders see conditions more positively and experience less stress and fatigue. This allows for a better focus, reason and discernment—in all a healthier leadership. Contrary to this, ungrateful leaders are often burdened with debilitating stress and are more susceptible to burnout. A negative outlook misjudges situations, causing mistakes, missed opportunities and unfortunate responses.

Gratitude often spurs compassion and kindness toward others. This draws employees and forms their loyalty, trust and engagement. People find these qualities difficult to resist. They want to be around a leader who’s grateful, and in turn become more grateful themselves. The opposite effect is true for ungrateful leaders: they are hard to deal with. People avoid them and have no desire to know them. Ingratitude spreads like a disease, causing the culture to grow toxic.

Growing Your Internal Gratitude

No question, gratitude is a perspective that forms your mindset and world view. These act as valuable foundations for a positive, value-based life, both corporately and personally. This benefits the people around you as well. But how can you grow this trait within you? How can the seeds of gratitude get planted in your mind?

A fundamental approach is to take stock of what you’ve been given: what skills you’ve acquired, what opportunities came your way, what successes you’ve enjoyed and what people have made your life better. In other words, deciding to focus on the positive aspects of your life is a primary step to being thankful.

Appreciate the small things you have, the little gains that could have benefitted someone else, but came your way. Everyone’s life can be a celebration of positive things. It’s a choice. Take a look back in time and revisit the journey you’ve been on and see how far you’ve come. Isn’t that worth being thankful? When stress rises think of those things you’re thankful for and foster a better perspective.

Recognizing the relative nature of things can also help develop a spirit of gratitude. You likely know of people who are burdened by things that don’t affect you. There are always tougher stories out there. Being thankful for what you don’t have to deal with can complement the thankfulness for the good things you have.

To keep you on the right track, surround yourself with people that can lift your spirits. These are most likely other grateful people. You’ll be surprised how sufficiently their gratitude wears off on you. An executive coach can put you on the right path and encourage you along the way, helping you to train your brain to lean to the positive side of things.

Building a Culture of Gratitude

Since all leaders mold their culture one way or another, a grateful leader influences their people in ways that demonstrate the benefits of thankfulness. People see the difference and they like it, wanting more of it. Work life becomes more enjoyable and rewarding. Leading by example is the most powerful means to prompt a better environment, as your people take on the culture-enhancing aspects of your gratitude.

Noted author and coach DeLores Pressley puts it simply in Smart Business Magazine, authenticity is the best way to make an impression. Phony gratitude is noticeable. Showing your staff that you’re thankful for them is a significant demonstration of gratitude. People who feel valued return the sentiment.

To solidify this theme, leaders who make it a habit to thank their people build a culture of mutual appreciation and emulation. Find ways to reach out to them and add value with thanks, appreciation, congratulations for accomplishments and helpfulness. Giving them your best, with your time and your skills, tells them you’re grateful for having them on your staff.

Leaders who point to the positives in everyday activities reveal a grateful spirit. Of course, there are negative issues in every organization, and lamenting with grumbling or resentment drags everyone down. However, emphasizing a focus on positive solutions or valued lessons learned draws out thankfulness in everyone. Building on positives enhances the opportunities for more, and it unites people in a common, worthy cause. That’s worth being thankful for, too.

Believing in your leadership abilities and the skills of your people, giving them grace when they err and support when they succeed, crafts a positive and grateful culture that has no limits. Make it your example and your expectation that a positive, thankful mindset is what your organization needs in order to prosper. Certainly no one will object to that.

The Perils of Perfectionism

Employees generally agree that leaders with a passion for excellence, quality and accomplishment benefit their organizations. These qualities place leaders at the top of their fields. No one faults managers who give their all and make sacrifices, but too much of a good thing can also pose problems.

Perfectionistic leaders may be as damaging as those who embrace mediocrity. Perfectionists often obsess over process, commonly insisting that tasks be completed their way. Often accompanying perfectionism is obsessive-compulsive behavior, with leaders demanding adherence to narrow windows of acceptable norms. While ostensibly committed to doing what’s best, perfectionists have tightly controlled definitions of what best means.

Perfectionistic leaders frustrate their people, burden them with extreme expectations and cause resentment. A leader’s desire to do the right thing leads to a rigidly controlled, distrusting and unaccepting culture that smothers people into submission. Fortunately, there are ways to understand and deal with perfectionism while maintaining excellence and productivity.

Do You Have Perfectionistic Tendencies?

Perfectionists believe they have a keen mind for what works (and what doesn’t). They assess optimal methods and outcomes, endeavoring to implement them—a fine goal, as long as leaders avoid obsession.

By definition, an obsession is a dominant, persistent focus on a thought or feeling that overrules all others. Obsessions take leaders down ineffective paths, where they’re blinded into believing that effectiveness is possible only when absolute perfection is achieved. The cycle then escalates: The more leaders focus on efficacy, the greater their need for perfection.

Perfectionists strive for excellence and virtue in everything they do, notes psychotherapist and leadership consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Their quest, however, manifests as a noticeable compulsion and calculated culture that alienates many employees. Though perfection is truly unattainable, perfectionistic leaders remain unconvinced. They continue to push for their desired outcomes, even as the consequences of their actions call for corrections.

Perfectionistic leaders develop the skills to blend reason, logic, emotion and insight. They rely on these tools to affirm their sense of purpose—a strategy that helps them solve and avoid problems, while providing motivation and comfort.

If you spot some of these tendencies in your behavior, you may, indeed, be a perfectionist. Despite your best intentions, you may be causing your people and organization to struggle. The more you focus on raising the bar, the less likely you are to see the harmful effects on those around you. Fortunately, a qualified leadership coach can help you assess your issues and develop a healthier, more effective leadership style.

Perfectionism’s Pros and Cons

Leaders who strive for excellence can lay strong foundations for their organizations. They:

  • Aim for the highest standards, through ethical conduct and honorable motives
  • Are dedicated to the organization’s mission, with support and intentionality
  • Exude reliability, honesty, integrity, diligence and perseverance
  • Honor organizational policies, rules and practices with the structure they provide
  • Are detail-oriented, with a clear understanding of how things work
  • Have few ego issues, seeking every opportunity to excel
  • Are terrific teachers who help others learn and improve

But when taken to extremes, these traits create dissent, employee dissatisfaction and turnover. When leaders prioritize outcomes over people, employee morale and a leader’s legacy suffer. On the negative end of the spectrum, perfectionistic leaders:

  • Hold unrealistic expectations of excellence that people can never meet
  • Engage in black-and-white thinking, leading them to reach rash or unfair conclusions
  • Believe their way is the best way—in short, the only way
  • Criticize those who disagree with their assessments and solutions
  • Assume others cannot complete work as effectively as they can
  • Take on too much work, without delegating, believing others will achieve lesser results
  • Make goals seem more critical than necessary
  • Often micromanage or control projects to ensure their standards prevail
  • Can be tough to please, as results are seldom good enough
  • Pressure themselves into doing better and continually need more from their people
  • Are so focused on methods and results that they fail to notice (or deal with) their detrimental effects on employees
  • Are unwilling to develop other leaders or successors, believing no one can lead the organization or replace them

If some of these behaviors sound uncomfortably familiar to you, perfectionism may be jeopardizing your organization and career. Your people need room to breathe and the freedom to contribute with the skills they have. There’s almost always more than one way to achieve a goal. Perfection, as desirable as it may seem, is deceptively dangerous.

Signs and Symptoms

Perfectionistic leaders exhibit widely observable behavioral patterns. They have a precise manner, with a keen attention to detail, punctuality, specificity and process. Tunnel vision causes them to adhere strongly to established policies and procedures. They show displeasure with those whose priorities differ, and they instruct their people to follow “the plan.”  They issue compulsively frequent reminders and criticisms.

Perfectionists assign people to one of two categories: those who support their values and methods vs. those who dissent. Their attempts to teach or make suggestions are largely firm or critical. When these leaders receive negative feedback, they become judgmental and biased.

Perfectionistic leaders are generally inflexible and loath to entertain other ideas. They may become self-righteous when they’ve determined their analysis is thorough and needs no improvement. They hover over employees, attempting to ensure each task is performed perfectly. They emphasize the value of hard work, obsess over details, quickly highlight errors and believe mistakes are catastrophic. Their language and tone convey distrust in others. Declining to delegate is their way of protecting their systems, values and control. Working for them can be unbearable.

Breaking the Habit

Perfectionism’s negative tendencies outweigh the positives when taken to extremes. Consider retaining an experienced executive coach if you’re struggling with a perfectionistic personality. Coaching encourages collaborative, reasonable behaviors that allow you to accomplish noble goals.

Perfectionists must learn how to back away from the relentless urge to seek an unblemished track record. Virtually no project will run flawlessly in the business world, nor should this be one’s goal. Excellence is attainable, so learn to differentiate it from perfection. Over-the-top efforts to realize perfection are unnecessary and counterproductive.

Perfectionistic leaders can learn that success is earned by giving their best and making the most practical choices. Mistakes and oversights are common, and there are always creative ways to work around, mitigate and minimize their impact. The world will never run on perfection, nor will any conscientious leader.

Leaders must recognize how their criticisms affect people and their work. Take the time to gauge morale and productivity levels. Work with a trusted colleague, mentor or coach to improve how you offer feedback and suggestions.

Leaders who are determined to conquer their perfectionistic tendencies will make the greatest strides, Dr. Chestnut explains. Changing one’s mindset is a process that requires transparency and humility. Diligent leaders can learn to adopt proper perspectives.

Reformed perfectionists learn how to be open to other ideas, agree to be teachable and recognize that no one has all the answers. Problems can be solved in multiple ways. The most successful leaders surround themselves with smart, innovative people who bring great ideas to the table. Collaboration is a strength; valuing only your own ideas is a liability.

Working for a Perfectionistic Leader

If you report to a perfectionist, resist the urge to express resentment, defiance or disrespect. Rebelliousness goads perfectionists into reacting, thus worsening your relationship. You want to avoid doing irreparable damage. Be advised, however, that submissiveness is not the answer.

Perfectionistic leaders value unity, knowing it’s key to attaining excellence. They want to be understood and have their core values appreciated. Demonstrate your commitment to excellence by telling your boss that you, too, value quality and integrity—a strategy that will enhance your relationship. While you may disagree on specific methods, work toward conveying your opinions and finding workable compromises, Dr. Chestnut advises.

Emphasize common goals so your boss values your partnership enough to address disagreements willingly. Discuss differences in rational, calm and respectful ways. Help your boss see alternative paths to goals. Outline pros and cons to discover why your leader prefers one approach to another. Detail-oriented leaders value input when they’re guided to objective conclusions. Be willing to critique your own ideas, as well.

Perfectionists, who think clearly and definitively, are more likely to be on your wavelength if you work methodically, as well. Find ways to express appreciation for your boss’s willingness to solve problems and make decisions jointly. Be accountable and willing to apologize for mistakes or delays, which builds trust and prevents judgmental responses. Perfectionistic leaders appreciate positive, but honest, feedback when their teams are attentively pursuing their goals.

You can support your boss’s coveted processes and procedures while offering additional ideas. Let your boss see you as a consistently positive and trustworthy influence, which may diminish hypervigilance and micromanagement. When perfectionistic leaders accept alternate strategies, their grip on black-and-white thinking may loosen. They may come to realize that success doesn’t require perfection or a breakneck work pace. As they learn that processes benefit from some give-and-take, their leadership style may evolve.