A frequent challenge when trying to create a culture of gratitude within an organization is that as people, we have evolved over millions of years with a negative bias. In other words, we tend to spend more time focused on the negatives or on what is not working, as opposed to the positives or what is working. As noted by Rick Hanson, PhD1, man has progressed over time with a greater focus on the negative sensors in our environment rather than the positive ones – out of a natural survival response. For example, it was more important for a caveman to recognize that a member of his group died after eating a certain kind of berry than it was to remember a particularly beautiful day. As a result of this negative bias, man was ultimately able to survive the multitude of threats he faced, and over time, this negative bias became incorporated into our DNA.
That same kind of logic has also evolved over time in the business world, as leaders develop a focus on continuous performance improvement. Performance improvement, which by definition means ‘always looking for ways to get better,’ naturally looks at negative situations or failures in processes or individual accountability and how to make them better. While leaders are ultimately focused on success, they have learned that rather than looking for successes and identifying what worked well – because we don’t always know – leaders are oriented to look for failures since fixing those failures will help the organization grow and survive. This is no different than the caveman who learned which berries not to eat.
While this negative bias is critical to our success, we have also learned that rewarding and recognizing positive behavior is also critical to an organization’s success. In today’s world businesses must deal with an unlimited supply of data and information, competitive threats and disruption, and the transient nature of employees. Leaders recognize that building a culture of accountability is essential to ensure that everyone in the organization is focused on those critical issues that will move their organization forward. Leaders also recognize that no one person has all the answers, so building a culture of accountability is designed to empower everyone, at all levels within the organization, to continually look at how to improve their part of the organization – and be held accountable to do so. The problem with our built-in negative bias, and our desire to ensure that everyone is held accountable, is that we cannot continually push people to do better without recognizing that people need to feel appreciated for the work they do. So along with building a culture of accountability, it is also important that we build a culture of gratitude simultaneously, within our organizations. Said another way, leaders cannot continually look to light a fire underneath people to help them succeed. We certainly see the consequences of that in healthcare with clinician burnout. Sustainable success requires lighting a fire within someone, so that they are driven to be accountable based upon leadership’s ability to make them feel appreciated and supported.
Subsequent articles in this series will address important strategies to build that culture of gratitude.
- ¹ “Take in the Good” article on the website: https://www.rickhanson.net/