It can be hard at times to feel real gratitude. I do not mean the polite socially acceptable kind where you must say “thank you” or risk raised eyebrows. You might find yourself in a tragic situation, or dealing with a toxic person, for whom you feel a strong dislike or resistance. You might find yourself in a situation where your team is moving forward with an idea you know will not work. The inability to feel authentic gratitude in these situations is a challenge that leaders have. It is easy to rationalize why you shouldn’t be grateful.

Surprisingly, even in the most devastating situations, people can be able to start expressing gratitude even in the immediate aftermath. Imagine, a month after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59, being grateful. Here’s what one survivor said:

“It was a horrific experience, but in an odd way, I’m thankful to experience the after-effects – you see the best of humanity after a disaster. “ – David Bugenske, a Los Angeles based radio presenter who was at the Las Vegas concert shooting.

When I expressed the repulsion I felt for a particular person, a coach gave me this exercise to do: he asked me to list all the people I really disliked. There were only two. I have come a long way. I could find the good in almost everyone, even people I perceived as “difficult people.” The two individuals when I said their names it generated a physical reaction in my gut, a head shake, or clenching of my fists. The coach told me to write the names down and look at them every day for a week. 

He kept saying, “What you resist persists.” When you can see what you are resisting, then you can learn and be grateful. To my surprise, he was right. These two people were unfiltered, loudmouth blurters who were hurtful and caused pain with their words and actions. It became clear that they were reminders for me to speak up and state my thoughts and opinions. My reminder and ongoing life lesson is that it is okay to speak up and disagree. Sometimes it is okay to speak over someone and shut them down. I was being too “nice.” I’ve taught myself how to interrupt in a respectful way, and I teach this skill to others. The more I resisted speaking up when these two individuals were hurting me and the people around me, the angrier I felt.

Recently I said out loud one of their names, and I no longer felt the physical reaction I once had. I even went so far as to picture something positive about that person that I was grateful for. I am grateful to this coach for insisting I do the exercise and to the two people that I resisted. I am still opposed to their poor behaviors and now view them in a different light: they are people with negative behaviors, rather than being negative people. 

Being in an environment that does not support gratitude or positivity makes it harder to be grateful. If you are willing to look hard enough, there is a lesson and a reason to be grateful for everything. Sometimes it’s years before the gratitude shows up. Sometimes negative people and environments are too difficult and draining, which makes it hard to keep a grateful mindset or to begin developing one. It is uncomfortable. We have a choice, to accept it, try to change it, or leave. Choosing requires courage. Sometimes the best answer is to remove yourself from a situation, by walking out of the meeting, transferring to another department, or leaving the company. Employees who feel powerless are more likely to leave an organization. As leaders, we have more power to change the culture to one of gratitude. The challenge is to create leaders and a culture of gratitude faster!

Having a practice of gratitude comes with many challenges. Telling someone to be grateful does not work. Creating a culture of gratitude to replace one dominated by negative behaviors or self-important, ungrateful people can be an uphill battle. Often gratitude is seen as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to take advantage of a situation. Learning to tailor strategies for each environment and individual by setting boundaries and injecting reality on top of gratitude can be made into a set of practical strategies. I can help you infuse more gratitude into your leadership or your teams. I love to hear your stories and challenges with gratitude, please reach out to share either by email or set up a chat.