Lockdown has cut us off from each other. Teams are communicating via web channels and the personal touch has been put on hold. Paradoxically, this is not a bad time to reconsider human interaction and the dynamics of relationships - at work, at home and in our social lives.
As face-to-face contact resumes, eventually, and pre-COVID-19 routines and customs resurface, the quality of our relationships will be exposed.
Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has a particular insight into what inspires and energises people at work.
In the latest webinar from the School featuring faculty experts discussing the most pressing topics of the day, Professor Cable talks about the powerful emotion of gratitude and how showing a greater appreciation of each other can reinforce relationships at work and beyond.
Gratitude, he says, is something we are all capable of feeling and showing. It is a beneficial emotion; it can energise and create a positive feeling – and an impulse to give back. For different reasons people at work may not often express gratitude and appreciation, but the effect of doing so can be powerful. It is worth thinking about how we can introduce more conscious displays of gratitude in our lives.
Consider the example of the Chicago-based comedian Dave Maher. A few years ago, Maher fell ill. He worked late at night, had an unhealthy lifestyle, and was a Type 1 diabetic. He was overweight, drank too much and also enjoyed marijuana.
Maher sold his diabetes testing strips to pay for his cannabis habit. He stopped testing himself and his insulin levels got so low he fell into a coma. He was unconscious for three weeks, and his parents and doctors didn’t know what to do. It was a dreadful moment.
The doctors said he was not going to come out of the coma. His parents told his friends that they were going to have a last moment for him and invited them to come and see him or send in messages.
His friends came and left. And then they started posting eulogies for him on his Facebook page, thanking him for all the times he had done something kind to help them or improve their lives. It turned out he was a very generous person who had always been there for people, Professor Cable explains.
“We think it is good to chastise people for their weaknesses”
Almost 100 people wrote messages of varying lengths. And then, unexpectedly, Maher woke up (he had by this time been moved to a different hospital). He joked that he had “turned Thanksgiving into Easter!”
But now he had all these stories, almost 100 eulogies, to read. And clearly this was very powerful for him, to hear that people were grateful for his unique presence. “They told him what he brought to the party,” Professor Cable says. “He got to witness it. It was very emotional and powerful.”
He adds: “We don’t tell people about these things until they die, and then we say it in a eulogy format. Only then do we share this gratitude and our appreciation for their unique qualities, when they cannot hear it.
“That’s pretty messed up - this way of operating where we hide those precious stories.”
In terms of our health and wellbeing, poor social relationships can be more negative and harmful than alcohol, obesity, smoking and air pollution put together. There is data to prove this.
Whereas, good social relationships can literally make life more worth living. The inspiration behind so-called positive psychology, Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, urged people to take part in what he called a ‘gratitude visit’.
Professor Cable explains how it works. You get people to write down a story that expresses their gratitude and appreciation towards someone, and then go and read it out to them. You find an opportunity to thank someone for something they did, but which you’d never properly thanked them for.
You can do it in just two paragraphs: tell them how they helped and what it meant to you, how you felt. And best of all go and read it to them. It very often turns out to be a highly moving experience.
A study for the American Psychologist journal found that gratitude visits helped to lift people’s moods better months later, when compared with a control group who didn’t carry out such a visit. The people who had heard the stories also felt better. Both felt closer to each other, and knew more about what makes each other unique, having shared a certain vulnerability together.
“This can bond you and make you feel understood,” Professor Cable says.
Another study by Nicholas Epley and Amit Kumar from the universities of Chicago and Texas (Austin) respectively supported these findings. They also got people to write their stories of appreciation and send them. These narratives were savoured by the recipients.
“But they wanted to know something else, so they asked a second question in advance of this process: ‘How awkward would you feel sending this letter?’ And it turned out that people did feel pretty awkward about doing this. It’s not something you see happening very often.
Humans are super-social, Professor Cable says, like ants and bees. “We act as a collective. So, we are worried about pride and arrogance. We think it is good to chastise people for their weaknesses. We think that’s good for the group, and we worry about praising people because they will get big-headed,” he explains, adding that it’s almost hard-wired into us to withhold the positive and share the negative.
“We tell people about their weaknesses and fail to tell people about their strengths,” he says. “But if aliens were watching us and they didn’t understand our norms and cultures they might ask: ‘Why the eulogies after death? Why don’t they do it sooner.’”
“The organisations of tomorrow need to instil positive emotions of excitement, creativity and curiosity”
Work and organisations are a collective of humans and a breeding ground for negativity.
“In companies, we tend to be happier telling people what they are bad at: where they messed up, what they need to improve. But we don’t always say when people have done well. We just let that go or take it as a given.
”Similarly, with parents: we tend to overlook the A in maths and the A in science, and focus on the C in history.”
The participants in the Epley and Kumar study asked the people they sent letters to how they felt about receiving them. They loved them. It was not awkward as the writers believed it would be. It was surprising, powerful, and pleasing.
Another concern for the writers was that they were worried they would be inarticulate. They weren’t sure they would do a good job. But the recipients said they were beautifully written. Overall it turned out to be a very positive experience for all.
In organisations, Professor Cable believes we have taken negativity too far. “We use fear, instead of praise and gratitude, as a motivating force. In the past, organisations got results through fostering fear because repeating tried and tested tasks and practices produced a competitive advantage. Fear is great for focusing people, even if it makes them sick. But the organisation of tomorrow needs to think new thoughts, instil positive emotions of excitement and creativity and curiosity. We want people to be open. This leads to agility and new solutions to old problems.”
World-class athletes create a tape of their best moves and plays. They cobble together the great things they have done and watch them before big matches. It is a way of reminding themselves what they are capable of.
At work we all have exceptional times when we do more or contribute more, Professor Cable says. “We should all develop a highlights reel and recognise how people see us when we are at our best.”
You can also build highlights reels for other people and show them how they look when they are at their best, he says. “Give them gratitude and appreciation and show them how they have helped with their strengths.”
Professor Cable has worked on highlights reels with 13,000 people and had discussions around their feelings toward the process. “I ask them: ‘Does this make you feel big-headed and proud, or humble?’ Mostly they say it makes them feel humble and inspires them,” he says.
As a human emotion, gratitude makes you want to reciprocate, Professor Cable says. It creates a daisy chain: it has an energising effect.
Choose someone – a high school friend, family member, or a colleague – and write three specific memories of times they used their unique strengths to make a difference or a special contribution. This should only take 15 minutes or so. Specificity is crucial for this to be most effective. People don’t just want to be praised in generalities. It’s the details that help people relive those actions and behaviours.”
Sharing stories builds connectivity, Professor Cable says. And if you practise the behaviour, it becomes a habit and won’t feel awkward anymore. People will appreciate the effort.
“We are flying blind,” he adds. “We have a limited grasp of the impact we have on people. And this in turn limits our impact on the world. It means we don’t play to our strengths.
“When you highlight people’s strengths, it ignites them, and they want to give more. It’s like electricity running under the floors of organisations, but we don’t plug in to it. It is time to switch this hidden power source on.”
Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Dan’s research and teaching focus is on employee engagement, change, organisational culture and leadership mindset. He teaches on a number of our Executive Education programmes. His new book Exceptional will be published in September and is available to pre-order here.