I enjoyed an enlightening conversation with Dr. Glenn Fox about gratitude. In this post, Dr. Fox expands upon his research from the USC Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies regarding gratitude for business leaders, in particular, ways they can become more successful through incorporating his practices.
Can you start by telling us about your current projects with business leaders and organizations?
Glenn: My mission with business leaders is to take the science of the good life, the science of everything I know about what it means to do well--to be happy, to flourish, to succeed at tackling goals--and translate this into things people can do and understand. I'm particularly focused on entrepreneurs and early stage founders who are doing the very hard work of creating and leading a new venture. They're facing high rates of burnout and all manners of internal struggle.
And what do you bring to this role that’s unique?
Glenn: I bring knowledge of how the brain works and how the brain handles stress. It makes a huge difference in how I can talk to people about their inner life--what's going on in their lives that can help them feel a little less stressed at any given time--the neuroscience of founding. I also spent four years running an institute dedicated to high performance. Leading this group, I got to know a lot about the world of high-performance when we worked with elite populations ranging from Olympians to NFL teams, to military warfighters, and in so doing, I learned about the role the mind has in determining success. Putting all these together, my three features are neuroscience, performance, and entrepreneurship.
How exactly do you link gratitude with success for business leadership?
Glenn: We can define success in a number of ways. Let's say we define success as some blend of inner and outer markers. There’s of course the ever-present chase of your KPI, or key performance indicator. We need to have accountability, we need to have performance, and we need to keep track of how people are doing so we can measure success through changes or metrics.
Then there's success internally. Are we showing up with our values in such a way that makes people feel comfortable and motivated and creative? These are things you really don't necessarily capture in a KPI. But they lead to it.
"Are we burning through our relationships? Are we leading an inclusive team? Are we helping lift people?"
How can a leader get started with this?
Glenn: There are no non-competitive marketplaces. So you have to find ways to differentiate against the competition. Let's start with a very standard KPI, which is sales. Let's say you're in a business to business, a B2B. You have clients who have onboarding clients, finding and negotiating new contracts and deals for a company. In this case, gratitude can play a role in the sense of how you reach and develop authentic relationships.
"Nobody likes to be sold things. We like to have genuine connection."
What makes a good salesperson is the desire to help people and make that person's life better. If they're successful, they can have a commercial relationship that has something to do with the gratitude felt. We've all had interactions with companies where they really go above and beyond what you would expect. And we just feel like, “Wow, that was incredible. The people at this company just went so far past what we were looking for.”
So, be an authentic giver and people will be more likely to engage with your company. Being a good person, being certain every representative of your company is going to uphold the values and generate good relationships, that leads directly to your KPI and ultimately sales as well.
How about gratitude for success internally?
Glenn: There are immeasurable success markers. You will find in some startups, concrete floors, cart tables, and snack bags everywhere, and you'll be like, “This place looks terrible to work,” but the people could not be happier. They're working long hours. They're on a team. They've got a lot of flow and they love what they're doing. And they're excited to go to work. They’ve kind of hit that jackpot in life--that funky startup culture where a lot of the external trappings aren't there, but the people are very happy.
Of course you can have the inverse: you can have a very nice place to work and be very miserable. But, you need to make sure if you're a business leader that people who work for you feel appreciated. They need to feel like they're contributing to the mission of the organization. They need to feel like they are being welcomed, and that their contribution, however large or small, makes a difference.
"There's not just one definition of gratitude, but it can play a role in every single relationship."
Can we talk a bit about culture?
Glenn: Culture is expensive. Good culture is very expensive because you have to sacrifice what you perceive as the bottom line in favor of more humane practices, such as increased time off, increased benefits, better workplace environments--all things that can drain from your profit margins. You invest in experiences for your people so they're happy. Good culture is expensive. That’s how it is.
Unfortunately, bad culture is just as expensive. When you treat people poorly, they produce less work of lower quality. They will turn off the clients. And at the very, very worst case, if you have an extremely toxic culture, you have lawsuits, and you have lawyers, and lawyers add up very quickly. So in addition to just the humane aspect that I hope connects people to want to lead companies where people feel warm and appreciated, safe, motivated, and creative, you have the very pragmatic cost factor that one way or another, you're going to pay for the culture you get.
"If you have any desire to build a company, pay for the good culture."
How can a leader build a strong team through gratitude?
Glenn: There's an art to gratitude. There's a skill involved in finding how leaders can invoke authentic gratitude in their teams. The wrong way to do it is to expect that you get anything back from it. A leader needs to be willing to do things for the team that won't necessarily pay back anything, where they give without expectation that it is going to lead to more productivity or more than just finding a way to say, “I care about you. I care about the team.”
You're not being overly personal. You're just saying, “Listen, we've got to spend our time together. I want just as much as you to have a healthy, balanced life. I want us to work hard and be productive.” Also just acknowledging people--if you're the CEO, you're literally paying people to spend time with you. So back their time and energy. There's a lot of things we can do that are not monetary, that can lead to incredible feelings of gratitude in the company. First of all, show some genuine care for the people. Like, “How's your job going? What could I do to make your job easier?”
And how can a leader incorporate gratitude into a team that's struggling--whether they're leading a team or they’re part of a leadership team, and there are issues with psychological safety, communication, or competition?
Glenn: A good analogy for the manager is the hardware store owner that has all the tools for the team and doesn't necessarily overprescribe how to do something apart from, “We need to get this goal. We need to get to here. I know it's a hard goal, but I really want to hear what you think we could do to get to that goal.”
You have to instill in people the sense that their work will be appreciated, that their best efforts will be noted, and that they have some volition for how they actually want to achieve their goals. When you endeavor to enhance their curiosity, people respond really well to choice. Giving people choices is a great way to build gratitude for a team to say, “Competition is building this thing. If we're able to take on this risk and this expenditure, and we do it correctly, we're going to be in such great shape as a company. How do you think we should get up to this level?”
"That element of transparency is also giving someone a gift. It's an element of vulnerability you can't repay."
What specific steps can a leader take to make this happen?
Glenn: Giving with the expectation that you're going to get something back is not going to work. That's why a lot of these incentive programs fall on their face. Imagine a company named Acme saying, “We're going to give you Acme points. If you meet your goals, you're going to be able to go to our Acme Online Store and you combine all your points (and get) headphones and...” this doesn't work. It doesn't work at all because people are like, “How do I get points without having to do any of the work?” Then the game is simple. “I want points, but no work.” So you have these unintended consequences like, “Great, I'll try to just do that and not the quality of the work itself.”
Incentive programs only work when they leverage people's intrinsic motivations. If you're a leader, find what you can give then give a little more, especially now in the tech field where it's a war for talent. There's only so many extremely talented engineers, and these companies are doing anything they can to keep people happy.
"You have to find a way to develop a sense of gratitude for your team. And luckily you can do it in many ways, but leverage people's choices, make them feel appreciated at work, then give as much as you can."
How can a leader facing many demands get started with gratitude?
Glenn: It's a matter of learning to leverage priorities for how we spend our time, leveraging our intention to use time for work or play, and eliminating things in between. Gratitude practice can be done in one minute. It’s better to take five to ten minutes and really reflect, but it will pay dividends in terms of the rest of your time.
There's tons of evidence showing that grateful people are happier people, and nobody gets that durable mindset without putting time into their mind. So if you want the benefits of this resilience, this is where neuroscience comes in.