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The Kindness / Gratitude Connection

Five Actions Gratitude- horizontal
A friend of mine recently commented that his business and professional relationships were transactional, not relational.  In describing them, he meant that while they were congenial, the motivation for the relationship was quid-pro-quo.  

I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine, and will only scratch yours if you scratch mine.

A transaction-based relationship exists as a function of a reciprocal economic exchange. It is a sophisticated form of negotiated shared mutual self-interest. It's nothing personal. Just an agreement between two or more people, or the culture that exists in an organization or community.

In a transactional culture, the institutional relationship centers within a game of power, influence and control. The reward in such a relationship is the validation of self worth by the organization.

Communities, where a transaction-based culture exists, is oriented around the status of the influential and prominent, and the line between those who are and are not is clearly maintained as a part of the culture.

As my friend shared his experience with me, the context reminded me of the organizational leaders whom I interviewed in the mid-1990s. In those interviews, I asked,"If you were to lose everything this afternoon, who would stand with you?"  Most answered with silence. One or two offered, "My mother?" None said their business partners, their friends, their spouse or children.

One reason the psychic effects of the recession have been so severe is that self-worth for so many business and professional people is rooted in this transactional institutional relationship. In effect,

"I am my position, title, job responsibilities and compensation package."

Displaced from this organizational setting after years of service, cast adrift into a sea of other unemployed professionals, it quickly becomes apparent that these transactional relationships cannot sustain us through life's disruptive transitions.

Like the leaders I interviewed, many people are finding that their confidence in the support and security of their institution is disintegrating. As accomplished professionals, who successfully maneuvered the challenges of operating within a transactional business environment, they now realize that they are on-their-own to chart their future course in an unknown landscape where organizational connection matters less and less, and human connection everything.

The Gratitude Response

For almost three years now, I have been on a journey of discovery related to the practice of gratitude. It all started with my reponse - Say Thanks Every Day - to Daniel Pink's Johnny Bunko 7th Lesson contest. My 7th lesson quickly became The Five Actions of Gratitude, and my thinking on gratitude most fully expressed in my 2010 Weekly Leader series, The Stewardship of Gratitude

As with most of my projects, questions are the driver of discovery.


At first, I wanted to understand gratitude, and how it can build stronger relationships and strengthen organizations. 

Then, I began to ask a question that got behind my original one.

When I am grateful to someone, to what am I responding?

After considerable of reflection, I finally concluded that it was human kindness.

By kindness, I mean acts that represent a certain kind of attitude and behavior that we have about people and our relationships with them.  I'm not just talking about family relationships, or close friends, but all our relationships, personal and professional.

Here's are some examples that inspire me to celebrate this human motivation.

A friend wrote me to tell about how she had been transferred to a different department within her company. While the change was good for her, it put her former boss and co-workers in a difficult position. Here's her description of what she did.

I told my ex-boss and current boss, that for my own conscience and personal conviction, I felt strongly wanting to help my ex-dept (esp my ex-bosses) as they were in very difficult times. I decided to take my few days of leave and go back to my ex-dept to coach and help them. Many, could not understand why I needed to go to this extent to help (by taking own leave) and jeopardizing my appraisal from my new dept by going the extra mile to help my ex-dept. I was not bothered because I knew what I was doing and I felt that loyalty, compassion and being there for my ex-bosses and colleagues were the most important things in life compared to how my new dept assessed me in my new appraisal.

My friend's former bosses and colleagues meant something to her. Her relationship to them was not a transactional relationship, but a professional relationship with a genuine depth of caring.

Another example that remains in my memory are the people I met in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast who had left the home communities, sold their homes or shut their utilities off, lock the doors and moved to contribute in the relief and recovery of the region following Hurricane Katrina. Six years later, some are still there making a difference as the region rebuilds.

I have the same respect for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of nameless people, who in the midst of the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the attack on The Pentagon and the bringing down of Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania,  cared for people whom they did not know, yet were in need. Their acts of kindness and sacrifice are, for me, why we commemorate this day each year. They are a living reminder that not everyone bases their actions on a mutual economic exchange.

These examples, and many others, are for me the Kindness / Gratitude Connection.


Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor describe kindness, in their book On Kindness, this way.

"... life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others."

Kindness is not the first attribute that we'd use to describe a business. Yet, it is one that we may identify as why we are loyal to one.

Kindness is an expression of empathy.  People who are kind and empathetic are able to see in other people the challenges they face and the potential that they have.  The empathy connection, like kindness, builds relationships of strength to overcome serious life challenges.

Kindness is a leadership capacity that transcends the formal structure of the organization. 

Leaders who can engage people with kindness and empathy are able to find resources of motivation and commitment that are non-existent in a transactional relationship.

Kindness in its fullness requires a level of personal maturity that enables us to look beyond our individual interests. In kindness, we can see the dignity, value and potential of other people.

Think of the many professional situations we encounter everyday. We walk into a room. There are a dozen or more people in there. What should our intention be?

If our intention is to be kind to each person, then we enter the room with the purpose of honoring them. To do so I must see that my presence in the room is not about me.  It is about the connection that can be made between me and another person, and of the room as a whole body of people.  My purpose is not to get something, but to contribute.

Does everyone in the room deserve this sort of treatment? Obviously not. But it isn't about treating people as they deserve. That is the transactional mindset. Rather, being kind in a business and professional context is about my acting in such a way that we all are able to achieve higher levels of impact that we could have.


I am suggesting that the practice of kindness and gratitude is a strategy for strengthening organizations. And, that without it, a company is weaker, less able to manage change and adapt to their opportunities.


I am saying that a transactional mindset is inherently unpredictable and organizationally divisive, and contributes to economic instability in organizations and the global economy.


I am actually saying that leaders who only know how to work within a transactional model are weaker, and, their displays of control and ego are masks for fear and a sense of inadequacy.

Treating each person with respect, empathy and honor doesn't mean that we are simply nice to them. It is means that we listen and treat their ideas and their actions seriously. By treating them with honor, we are able to be constructively critical. Without honor, our criticism easily becomes self-serving and destructive.

With honor and kindness, we build understanding between us that elevates our mutual strategic thought processes. This is often what is missing in executive efforts to increase team communication and decision-making. It isn't about the analytical process, but about the relationship that builds understanding, unity and commitment.

A reason why so much of social networking, whether in person or online, is a waste of time is because its based on a transactional perspective. When we seek to be kind, to contribute to the welfare of others, to practice the Five Actions of Gratitude, then the social dynamic changes. 

As my understanding of Gratitude and, now, Kindness has grown, I'm also seeing how my best online relationships are mutual expressions of The Kindness / Gratitude Connection. 

The Power of Mutual Reciprocity

Genuine accountability in relationships requires openness, transparency, and a mutual willingness to adapt and change to make the relationship work. We share a mutual intention to submit to one another's critique and counsel.

When mutual accountability works, the relationship transcends the transaction and begins to move toward a relationship that reflects the kindness / gratitude connection

Kindness fosters giving. It opens up social settings to opportunities that do not exist except when relationships are healthy and vital.  Givers are the source of this openness. Philanthropy is an embodiment of the kindness of strangers giving to causes and institutions that matter to them. Their giving creates the strength that makes a society work.

For this reason, gratitude is more than a function of social etiquette to which my grandmother would earnestly approve.  Rather, It is a fundamental part of every human relationship that completes the act of kindness by giving back in gratitude.

In many ways, the kindness / gratitude connection is a type of love.  Here is the beginning of Trappist monk Thomas Merton's, No Man Is An Island.

"A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy."

"There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit.  True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared.  There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit.  Infinite sharing is the law of God's inner life.  He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.  In disinterested activity we best fulfill our own capacities to act and to be."

"Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion.  It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely.  That is to say it must be given, not merely taken.  Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved.  And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied.  He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy.  It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love."

"Hence the paradox that unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love.  Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved.  In so doing, it perfects itself."

"The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it.  So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received."

The expression of kindness is analogous to the expression of love between people. Paraphrasing Merton, we could say. 

The gift of kindness is the gift of the power and the capacity to be kind, and, therefore, to give kindness with full effect is also to receive it.

The gift of gratitude is the gift of the power and the capacity to be grateful, and, therefore, to give gratitude with full effect is also to receive it.

The fulfillment of love for Merton isn't the expression of it. Rather, it is the mutual benefit that comes from mutual giving and receiving. This is what the Kindness / Gratitude Connection means.

My purpose is to show that gratitude is not just some nice thing that we do. Oh, isn't she nice. She sent me a thank you note. My point is to show that the expression of kindness and gratitude changes a professional relationship from a transactional one to an adaptive one..

When we act towards others with kindness, we open up possibilities in our relationship with them that would be more difficult to discover if my only interest was closing the deal. We become much more aware of the situations that we each have, and those that we share. As a result our communication level is deeper, and our willingness to help the other out is greater.

The Future is Kind

Everywhere I turn I see organizations and institutions failing because they think they can sustain the past into the future. The transaction-based professional relationship and institution are relics of a much more homogeneous, economically predictable time.  It is the model of the 20th century that worked.

The 21st century is vastly different. The organizational forms of the past are disintegrating, to the point that all that is left is the commitment and desire of people to sustain the place of their employment.

The future is going to be secured in relationships of mutuality, kindness, honor, empathy and gratitude. 

These relationships will transcend all the boundaries that we spent the 20th century seeking to overcome. Where they remain are places still committed to sustaining the past.

The beauty of the 21st century is that it is open to everyone because it is built upon our relationships with one another. It is not just an ethical perspective, but a strategic development one. Making the Kindness / Gratitude Connection a strategic focus on a business, the kind of relationship we need to manage rapid, accelerating global change can be realized. The real beauty of it is that it is not institutionalize, but personalized in each one of us.

If we want to be successful in every aspect of our lives in the future, then learn to be kind, giving, grateful and honoring of the people in your life.

Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude*

Five Actions Gratitude- horizontal

The executive leaders of businesses are not just strategic decision-makers and systems managers, but the creators of culture.  This culture is the human dimension of their organization. It is how people interact, communicate, collaborate and operate ethically. 

There are some aspects of a healthy culture that transcend time and place, industry and organizational purpose. One of those marks is openness.

Two questions drive this interest for me.

What is an open culture?

How can the practice of gratitude contribute to it?

Think of a culture of a business as being the product of the ideas and relationships of people connected to it.

A culture has distinguishing characteristics, activities, branded products and services. and specific processes that represent that culture. It is also the connecting ideas of purpose or mission, values, vision and impact that are given life by the people within the culture. A culture is what binds people together as a group, a movement or an organization, and provides them a way to interact and support what matters to them collectively.

Cultures can be open or closed, healthy or dysfunctional, unified or confused, sustainable or dying.

The key to creating a healthy, sustainable culture is openness.

The Marks of an Open Culture

In an open culture there are low barriers to contributing.

A new person can join, and immediately make an impact. There is no process of jumping through hoops to determine whether you are worthy of contributing. I see this particularly in social organizations, whether a club or religious congregation. In an open culture, people join and start participating and contributing right away. Their contribution is valued and recognized.

Another characteristic of an open organizational culture is a high incidence of personal initiative being taken by members. In my mind, initiative is the beginning of all leadership. Without initiative, there is no leadership, only passive followership.

In a closed culture, the initiative is reserved for the authority figures. They decide what the group does and doesn’t do. This high control environment means that personal initiative is resisted and those who may be more independent, creative and innovative in their attitudes and behaviors are discouraged or punished for being so. In an open culture, people recognize that they have the opportunity and responsibility to create new and better ways of realizing the impact of their organization. So, they take personal initiative to make difference that matters.

A third mark is that openness creates a higher level of adaptability. In a closed culture, the mindset becomes defensive and resistant to change. The assumption is that a culture is fixed in time, and remains the same over time.  Rather, what is fixed are the values that drive the culture. The expression of those values can change over time. But the values don't.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, make the distinction between core values and cultural practices.

“Core Values are the organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of timeless guiding principles that require no external justification.”

Cultural practices, in their model, are those practices that have replaced the core values as the drivers of the company. These practices have lost their connection to the core values with the result that the company becomes closed to opportunities through change.

In an open culture, values matter. 

Your mission or purpose can change. Your vision can change. Your understanding of the impact that you want to have can change. They can because you are adapting to changes that are occurring simultaneously throughout the landscape of your business.  What guides you through change are your values. 

In an open culture, people find a culture where there are low barriers to contributing, their personal initiative to make a difference that matters is welcomed, and the company adapts more easily to change by being rooted in its values.

The challenge to creating an open culture is implementation. It is one thing to have well defined connecting ideas. It is another thing to know how to act upon them within the structure of the organization.

What I've discovered is that the practice of gratitude, as characterized in Say Thanks Every Day: The Five Actions of Gratitude, is a set of strategic practices that support an open culture.

The Five Actions of Gratitude as Openness Strategy 

Each of the five actions is an outreach of openness to others. It is not protective, defensive, exclusionary or elitist. It is open, grateful, giving, welcoming, respectful and creative.

Five Actions Gratitude

To Say Thanks is appreciate the actions and impact of another person.

It is recognizing another person or group’s contribution to your life and work. It is also a type of self-awareness that sees the beneficial place of others in our life

To Give Back is to recognize that I want to give back in service to persons, groups or communities some measure of the goodness that I’ve received from them.

This is not a payback of a debt owed, except as a debt of gratitude. It is an act of thankful contribution.

Imagine if this was the culture of your office right now. What would it would it look like. Maybe, what you’d see is a higher level of not just contribution, but sharing of work and responsibilities so that it gets done, and done well.

To Make Welcome is to create an open environment for people to take initiative to contribute.

With openness comes personal responsibility to make the workplace a better place to work, to innovate ways to better serve customers, and to resolve problems and issues before the grow into a crisis.

This is the key action for creating an open culture. It requires a specific kind of leadership that permits others to lead along side one another. It is a culture of shared responsibility and opportunity.

To Honor Others is to treat people with dignity, respect and kindness.

These are values that characterize the best of relationships. The are the basis for a culture of gratitude and trust.

The reality for most businesses is that these are rarely evident with any degree of strength. Why is it so?  My guess is that these practices require effort and commitment.  They do not easily translate to a company's bottom-line. They are not typically the qualifications for executive leadership. These values only create efficiency when the culture has reached a level of maturity. As noted above, it is this culture that produces the adaptability that is so essential for sustainable growth in the current business environment.

To Create Goodness is the outcome of an open culture that invites personal initiative to make a difference that matters.

Creativity is born in the initiative of a person. It rises from their values, their sense of purpose, the questions that lead them to explore new ways of doing the things and finally to make a difference that matters.

Goodness is the impact of an open culture. As the ancient Greeks understood goodness, it is a way to understand the fulfillment of purpose. It is way to understand wholeness, completeness, integrity and success. It is the fulfillment of the potential that resides in each of the connecting ideas. It is that intangible quality that brands the experience that people within a company's culture comes to measure the organization by.  It is the product of personal initiative, which flourishes within an open culture.

Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude

These practices are not just good ideas, which they are, not just good things to do, which they are, but more importantly a systemic strategy for the effective functioning of every organization. In order for a system of gratitude to be developed, the system that currently exists must be changed or replaced. It may be a small change or a large one, but turning your organization into an open culture of gratitude creates an environment of shared leadership that attracts the best talent to join you.

Leading in an Open Culture of Gratitude

I hear from people that gratitude is this sweet, grandmotherly sentiment that has little relevance to leading organizations. Obviously, they didn't know my grandmother. Instead, to practice gratitude as I've outlined here requires personal maturity, inner confidence, and a willingness to trust. Instead of it being trite, it is the most transformative, courageous thing an executive leader can do. 

To transform an organization’s culture from a closed one to an open one is dependent on the person at the top changing. It is a simple change, but a very difficult one. It is difficult because it is not tactical, but personal.

In order for an open culture of gratitude to grow, you have to decide that you are not the go-to-guy for everything, that you can’t make every decision, resolve every issue, be the king or queen on the throne, and be the one who dictates the course of your business. You can't even be the expert at creating an open culture of gratitude. You have to realize that you are a facilitator of talent, and that the value of that talent is only realized fully when each person is free to exercise their personal initiative for the greater good of the customer, other employees, the business and the community.

This is a change of mindset, of attitude and behavior. This is the supreme test of the character of the leader. Can you let go and let you people lead? If you can, then you can create an open culture of gratitude. If not, then you will be following those who can do it.

Openness is the key, and gratitude is the strategy that elevates openness to a practical, functional level.

Be grateful, giving, welcoming, honoring and creative and you’ll find new depth of impact emerging from the parts of your organization that have never produced to their potential. It all starts by being open and grateful.

* An earlier version of those post appeared as one of The Stewardship of Gratitude columns in Weekly Leader.