Iesha Small

speaker, writer, communications professional

Helping working class and introverted professionals thrive.

How gratitude can make you a better leader

Gratitude is proven to have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing. It will also make you a better leader

Having a daily gratitude practice since 2015 has improved my life and transformed my mental wellbeing. I’d never really thought until recently about how it could help people become better school leaders and professionals.

What is gratitude?

Let’s start with definitions. Gratitude is the act of acknowledging something or someone that has had a positive influence. In my personal life this could be noticing a wonderful sunrise as I drive in to work or remembering that my partner kindly ordered a surprise book for me that arrived one evening when I wasn’t expecting it. This article will specifically relate it to our lives at work.

Does gratitude work?

There is a strong evidence base for the benefits of gratitude. Unfortunately, as humans we are naturally programmed to notice and remember more negative events. It has kept us alive evolutionary speaking. We need to remember the time when we touched a fire and it was hot- our brains make the negative experiences more vivid than the time that we enjoyed frolicking in the meadow because knowing that fire is hot will stop us getting seriously injured. However, remembering and centring negative events also relates to depression and other mood disorders so we need to train ourselves to notice the many positive events that happen in our lives. This is consistent with findings from New Economic Foundation in their Five Ways to Wellbeing research.

Why is gratitude at work important?

We spend a large proportion of our adult lives at work. Regular 11+ hour days are not usual in school leadership so anything that can help to lift our own moods and create a positive culture for those we manage is a good thing. This also extends to class teachers because we are responsible for setting the tone and learning climate in our classrooms

How gratitude makes you a better leader

Gratitude improves your own mood so you are better able to manage others

Leaders are humans too. This is a fact that is simultaneously obvious and totally ignored. By noticing positive events and actions we are more likely to be positive ourselves. This helps us interact with people in a more compassionate way and ensure our decisions are made from a clear, calm and positive perspective. Leadership is about people, especially in schools, and when we are in a good mood it’s easier to interact with people especially in the fast paced and sometimes reactive daily world of education.

Gratitude helps your team feel valued

Have you ever received a thank you card? Or an email thanking you for your contribution? How did it feel? Great, right? Sure you may have been surprised or a little embarrassed but deep down we all want to be acknowledged for doing good work.  Recently it’s been a pleasure to receive thank you emails from people who read and subscribe to this blog. If you aren’t sure how you might thank collagues here are I’ve two ways I’ve recently expressed gratitude at work:

  • Went to find a teacher in another department at work to tell her about the (unsolicited) positive things one of my students had said about her lessons and what a good teacher she was
  • Emailed attendees at a roundtable I chaired to thank them for their specific contribution and impact

In my work for a think tank, our director is very good at often publicly acknowledging people for their work or positive client comments via our online internal messaging system, Slack. As a result, we have a culture where it’s normal for us to do the same with other members of the team.

Gratitude makes you find out more about the work your team is doing

Thank yous and gratitude work best if specific. If you are going to thank staff then you need to know what they are doing and how it benefits your organisation. This will involve you getting out and about. Wandering into classrooms and offices. Talking to people you don’t directly work with or line manage. Talking to pupils.  This gives you a better knowledge of the organisation you are trying to lead that spreadsheets and written reports won’t always show.

Gratitude creates a positive working culture which retains staff and helps people do their best work

Where would you rather work?

  • One where your boss spends the majority of the meeting saying how staff have failed or who has fallen short
  • One where the boss spends most of the time thanking people for what they have done- show casing great work and giving the team a chance to show their expertise.

I’ve worked in both types of places. Culture is created at the top. Workplaces where we see people always being criticised create a culture where everybody is in it for themselves. Staff just do what they can so they aren’t the ones on the end of the regular public shamings. Trust is eroded and that permeates all levels of the organisation.

Alternatively, a school or other organisation where the senior leadership look for the good in their teams and publicly acknowledge and celebrate staff creates safety and encourages people to take risks and do their best work. They know that mistakes don’t mean ridicule and the end of their career.  Sometimes negatives do need to be addressed when you are managing people. I’ve made it a policy to do this 1-2-1 and not in front of others who have nothing to do with the issue.

Gratitude is not just for pupils

I’ve worked in a variety of sectors but the majority of my working and leadership life has been in schools. Every school I’ve worked in has systems to acknowledge positive work that pupils do. This can be via reward ceremonies or similar. The reward itself isn’t the point (and may actually decrease intrinsic motivation) rather it’s the recognition. Fewer have had systems and cultures that publicly recognise the positive contribution of staff on a regular basis in a meaningful way. This is an error. Staff who feel valued because leaders express and actively demonstrate genuine gratitude for the work that they do will go the extra mile.

What next?

Find somebody to thank and acknowledge at work. As a school leader share good news about somebody else. It can be public or private but make it specific and genuine and watch your relationships and working culture transform. Challenge peers in leadership who needlessly spread negativity in your organisation. Share this with somebody who you think will find it helpful.


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How gratitude can make you a better leader