So happy to introduce you to one of my newest bloggy friends. A fierce SOPA adversary and defender of free speech, I am privileged to know and be educated by Daniel Brenton. He has had a blog completely devoted to gratitude and takes the wonders of a grateful heart to corners of the earth not always welcoming. Here he shares a foray into corporate america. I am grateful to be able to share his perspectives with you.
I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t at least have an inkling that cultivating a mindset of gratitude can be a deeply valuable thing on a number of levels. Convincing others of this value, though, is something that requires a level of discretion.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to do a 25 minute presentation on the power of gratitude in the context of a corporate department “all hands” meeting.
The idea of spelling out the value of gratitude to a room full of cubical serfs, middle managers, and corporate big-wigs may seem more than a little crazy, but this particular company was a government contractor moving at the direction of the customer toward a regulatory environment, an environment where Safety (toward the work) and Quality (of the work) were king and queen. I “sold” the presentation as a quality one, as in “quality of life,” and the department admin responsible for organizing our quarterly “safety” meetings bought the idea.
This came at a time when the remarkable significance of the value of gratitude had seized me fully. Calling this recognition an epiphany or even a revelation falls short. I was, in fact, a Gratitude Convert, and felt something of a missionary zeal.
Those who have done any public speaking almost certainly recognize the power of using a personal story to convey a message. I had two, actually: a personal story, and story everyone in the audience knew that was personal as well.
My journey to the understanding of value gratitude was a long one (one that I describe at some length on my own blog here). It seems clear to me that some people come to recognize gratitude “the hard way,” through what Dr. Morris Massey of the University of Colorado calls a “Significant Emotional Experience,” or an “SEE,” and this is in fact the path I took.
There is almost a sort of magic when a person finds him- or herself in an SEE. Think back to any kind of “near-miss” event where your life was threatened, or to the death of someone close, or (more happily) one of those peak experiences when some aspect of your life finds deep fulfillment (falling in love, achieving some long-standing goal, or the birth of a child). These events place a person in a new perspective, a profound sense of reflection about Life and their place in it. These are places where new understandings come to light to those who are thoughtful enough to be receptive to what the events can teach us, or reveal to us about ourselves.
A couple of SEEs figured in what “brought me to gratitude,” along with a lot of reflection on these two same events:
- A fatal traffic accident in which I was involved in 1999, where I walked away with literally only a few scratches;
- September 11, 2001.
September 11, in my opinion, was a sort of cultural SEE, shared by most Americans and many others in the western world.
As for the second one, when someone learns I’ve lived through an event where someone died only a few feet away from me, it sets the person back, and usually produces am immediate, visceral response something like, “Good God, what a horrible thing!” This reaction is in itself an SEE, a distant cousin of the intense reaction I had to the event, and likewise can have a similar transformative effect. It’s a shock, and ultimately it was a good one for me as a speaker, because it gave me an opportunity to emotionally short-circuit the rational chatter of the mind of the listener, and get down to The Real Stuff.
Tricky, but worthwhile if you can pull it off.
So there I was, preparing to offer a sort of gratitude salvation show to a pretty much unexpecting audience. And, in hindsight, I realize I was to some degree oblivious to the idea that my message might fall on deaf ears.
Fortunately I was successful in conveying that message and producing the intended effect. Beyond the audience response during the presentation, I received candid and heartfelt thanks after the meeting from both the General Manager and Deputy General Manager of the company. (Somewhat after the fact I realized my Department Manager’s response was significantly cooler than the response from both of his bosses …)
Naturally, being the gratitude convert that I am, I was sold on the idea (and still am) that gratitude has value for anyone. It was a large company, and I was jazzed up by the idea of reaching out across the organization into other departments to deliver it. I made several “pitches,” but beyond being rejected the only feedback I received was that my presentation was considered “too emotional by the engineering types.”
(This, honestly, probably explains my Department Manager’s subdued reaction.)
In hindsight, this actually was a good thing because I would have, almost certainly, been presenting the message to many who would not be willing to hear it.
“… lest they trample them under their feet …”
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
— Matthew 7:6
Now, I’m not calling gratitude something holy, but I do feel it deserves a modicum of respect. (Nor am I calling people who don’t “get” gratitude “swine” or “dogs.”)
What I am saying is that I think anyone who “gets” gratitude realizes there will be those in their lives with whom a gratitude message would be lost, or possibly even backfire. The ability to discern this comes from simply living in the world and developing a modicum of social skills.
Obviously in a group situation you’re working with a mix of people, some which may be receptive, some which won’t.
In hindsight, I can see I am extremely fortunate that my message was not trampled … and I was not rent.
Shoot the messenger … and the message while you’re at it
One aspect to delivering a gratitude message I hadn’t picked up on at the time is that, depending on how it’s delivered in the corporate context, it could be interpreted by the employees that they are being pressed into being grateful specifically for having a job there, or into maintaining a face of gratitude as a condition for continuing to be employed there. The implication is that the employee base would perceive that they are being seen by upper management as ungrateful, and that they needed to be “corrected.”
And, had I been given the opportunity to continue spreading a gratitude message through the company, I feel pretty confident I would have not only had to deal with the above-mentioned perception, but I could eventually been accused of encouraging the rank and file employees to become sycophants.
Oh, all right: toadies.
toad•y n. A person who ingratiates him- or herself in servile ways, fawns over, or defers to others, for self-serving reasons.
To say I could have been opening a can of worms pursuing this would be something of an understatement.
Gratitude ≠ (does not equal) sycophancy
Now, honestly: if I “noodge” a co-worker to be consider being grateful for their employment, I am not asking them to be a toady. I am asking them to consider being grateful. End of story.
But, in some people’s minds — people who have yet to really “get” gratitude — finding the aspects of an unpleasant situation in which we can be grateful equates with surrender, abdication, even capitulation. Another subtlety is that it can be felt that expressing gratitude in the face of an adverse condition is essentially giving license to the situation.
One can easily imagine a Dilbert-esque cliché of corporate management lording our employment over us with the expectation that we present some kind of face of thankfulness. Even if there are genuinely no such expectations, frequently the mass perception in a corporate culture can create such a strong, false impression of this that the perception supersedes reality.
Now, I would be lying to you if I said I couldn’t relate. Probably everyone in the work world has experienced it … not to mention any number of other circumstances outside of the work context where authority is abused or power wielded in an irresponsible manner.
Even in a personal context, it would be the rare individual who has not had to endure an abusive parent or overbearing friend or family member attempt to goad them into some kind of emotional obligation in the name of gratitude.
Gratitude = (does equal) empowerment
The bottom line is that gratitude in the face of negative circumstances does not equal acceptance or surrender, but actually is empowering, for two reasons:
- By identifying what we can be grateful for in a situation, it allows us to look at our circumstances more objectively, and gives us an opportunity to get a better sense of perspective. In doing this, we may reassess what the situation really means. Perhaps things aren’t as bad as we initially thought. Possibly we misunderstood them completely. At very least, this gives us a better vantage point to choose our battles wisely.
- By applying gratitude toward what we can find in an event to express it towards, this frees up emotional resources which we might need to draw on that might be squandered needlessly otherwise.
You can lead a horse to water — but remember what a wet horse smells like
Looking back at my corporate gratitude “career,” I’m grateful the road to continuing my message remained closed, because, simply, I had no idea how chock full of land mines that road would have been. It seemed painfully apparent to me that the injection of the recognition of the value of gratitude into that culture would have done tremendous good. However, I now see the “method of inoculation” was something that, if it were possible at all, would have been best left to experts in cultural engineering … which, unfortunately, were never engaged.
And no matter how effectively anyone could have made gratitude into a cultural “background noise” at that particular workplace, the “horse” may have been lead to water, but even the most persuasive leader couldn’t make it drink.
You, however, know that gratitude has value, or you wouldn’t still be reading this.
© 2011, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
Hey. I’m Daniel Brenton, author/editor of The Meaning of Existence (and all that): The Odd Little Universe of Daniel Brenton. [link: http://www.danielbrenton.com/ ]
I’m a writer, blogger, and have been something of an evangelist for the value of cultivating gratitude in our lives. I’m also the co-author of the space race thriller Red Moon (with David S. Michaels).
I’m in an mode of re-evaluating and refocusing my online efforts, but I’m sure no matter where I land it will still be in … The Twilight Zone.