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The Practice of Gratitude

Ashashyou - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This year my team participated in a series of "Community Conversations," designed to help us talk to each other. Why? Well, like everything there is a back story. Since the spring of 2018 when our last permanent director resigned, we've been like foster children, passed from one leadership situation to another. It didn't do a lot for our ability to get along. Let me be clear, though. What suffered wasn't the work. We were good at what we're trained to do. What suffered was the connective tissue, the getting along with folks, the trust, and the good humor, that allows a team to do more than complete a task. We were good at hiding petty issues from the community we serve, but backstage it could be rough.

My interim leadership ends this summer when our new director arrives. Like someone preparing for a 5K after a long period of inactivity, we've spent the last 10 months dedicating ourselves to getting ready for new leadership. We created a series of community values: patience, empathy, mutual respect, transparency, mutual support, and inclusion. We're now using those values as themes in team meeting agendas, and they will also be front and center in this month's performance reviews. And, as I mentioned, we've worked on communication and trust through the community conversations, bi-weekly chats in randomly assigned pairs to talk about our goals, both personal and professional. These are 30 minutes of work-sanctioned time to hit pause, put the dip stick down, and talk about how the last two weeks went. Did you succeed? If not, why not? Does your goal need tweaking? One person actively listens, while the other talks. What's active listening? It's being there. It's mirroring what's heard, It's not trying to fix anything. It's simply being there for someone else. Sounds almost too good to be true, right?

So what do team values and conversation in pairs have to do with gratitude? Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what we have. There are plenty of blogs and articles reminding us to be grateful for our good health, our families, our paychecks, and that's great, but even if you spend your entire commute to work reminding yourself how lucky you are, it won't help if your work relationships are suffering. In fact, it's hard to be grateful if you're miserable at work. You're isolated, and your partner's sick of listening to you bitch when you come home. Perhaps you're underpaid, perhaps under-resourced, and maybe under-appreciated. What do you have to be grateful for? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe your leader and your organization doesn't realize how important gratitude is.

I worked briefly for an individual who always thanked me, not in a big showy way, but in a little, folded note, written in handwriting that looked like something from the Bronte sisters. They would arrive late, left on my desk or in my mailbox for the next morning. He never staged thank you's in front of my co-workers, so they never were about him, the person doing the thanking. They were about me. He took the time and wrote to me. Personally. It was a boost, what former Avis CEO Robert Townsend called "A neglected form of compensation." (Don't let your hair go on fire here. I'm not suggesting personal thank you notes in lieu of decent pay.) But I am suggesting that a simple expression of thanks--authentically directed at a coworker-- builds the kind of team we all want. Because as we say on our campus, we all want to be safe, seen and supported.

The museum world is in a tough spot at the moment. There is a big revenue gap. Who knows whether visitors will come back. Staffs have been cut. Many staff do more than one job. Most organizations won't see a raise this year. But gratitude for the team you work with, their creativity, their energy, their devotion, doesn't cost anything except your time. Don't just think about writing a note, do it. A thanks doesn't have to be big or expensive. It's probably better if it's not.

Gratitude generates social capital. It makes us seem more trusting, more appreciative, and kinder. As a result, it makes us happier. In a 2020 study--well into the pandemic--only one in three Americans reported being recognized for their workplace successes, and yet 63-percent of those who are recognized are more likely to stay and not quit their jobs.

Gratitude is a practice. It takes time to nurture. Translate your feeling of thanks into action and let your colleagues know. And if you need a boost, listen to Brené Brown on gratitude.

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


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