When Leading with Gratitude Hurts More Than Helps

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

Before starting Ethos, I scheduled informational interviews with leaders I admired. In one of the meetings, I sat across from a Fortune 1000 leader who I knew as both having a record number of board seats and an unbelievable willingness to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

She graciously offered to sit through the first run of my sales pitch, which she responded to with thoughtful notes and recommendations. Then she told me I should be proud of myself for choosing the path I had and building the tools I’d shared with her.

Almost reflexively, I responded:

“I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity, and I am so grateful to have luck with me in this.”

She shot back unexpectedly with, “I hate when people say that. Tell me, how many long nights have you put in to make this happen? How many years of hard work? Do you feel grateful to yourself?”

I understood her point. Gratitude is powerful — it fosters greater feelings of optimism, well-being, and satisfaction in those who experience it. For those on the receiving end of gratitude, they may see increases in overall motivation and happiness scores.

But gratitude can be limiting, too. Perhaps the best example comes from Abby Wambach.

In her now famous commencement speech to Barnard College, she recounts finally grasping how gratitude had led her to settle for less than she deserved and ignore supporting others who deserved more.

“And it hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career […] just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.”

The crux of Wambach’s point lies in the “just.” Gratitude should not prohibit us from wanting more, taking credit, or pushing forward. But for many of us — myself included — it does.

When Gratitude Gets in the Way of Equality

Freedom is the ability to choose your reactions instead of simply having them.

In a mindfulness context, this means we can free ourselves through awareness, which affords us that choice. In a work setting, that idea of freedom is often less attainable.

As a working woman who spends her time supporting underrepresented groups within companies, I can attest to the fact that the expectations around our reactions often dictate what we can realistically show others.

The phrase “you should feel grateful to be here” takes on a very different meaning depending on the context. For some, this may act as a celebration of what you have. For others, it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t ask for more because those around us think we have enough — perhaps more than enough.

The problem is they may not see it that way for our counterparts. Some of us are expected to be grateful, but others are told that what they have is earned.

How do we expect to close the gender pay gap if we’re telling women they should just be grateful to have their jobs at all?

For many of us, the opposite of gratitude is greed or thanklessness, which puts those deemed “ungrateful” squarely in the Ebenezer Scrooge camp on a good day.

I spent most of my career hoping to be offered a raise without asking because the idea of seeming ungrateful for my job — one that paid more than most of the people in my family had made in their careers — seemed greedy. Yet, I always knew people who worked less than I did and made more.

When Gratitude Inhibits Leadership

Here’s an even simpler problem that emerges when the notion of gratitude is misused or misunderstood.

Leadership fundamentally means having a vision and inspiring others to follow you in pursuit of bringing that vision to life. If you’re stuck on feeling grateful, you may end up stuck, period.

Innovation demands chasing new ideas and boldly bring them together to make integrative decisions capable of producing something new.

When we focus on being grateful for where we are and what we have to maintain the status quo, we risk losing sight of our vision. In this way, complacency masquerading as gratitude can inhibit growth and change, not to mention demotivate those who follow us.

When Gratitude Overshadows Purpose

“Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the product of one’s labors utterly forgotten.” –George Saunders, Lincoln at the Bardo

When we default to gratitude with an uncritical eye, we’re also more likely to miss what really matters to us.

A review of 4,000 research papers conducted by the University of East Anglia and the What Works Center for Well-Being found that getting fired is more emotionally taxing than the death of a spouse. It actually takes longer for us to recover.

I hypothesize that this phenomenon stems from that fact that our identities are so wrapped up in our work. We often introduce ourselves exclusively by our job titles. But aren’t we more than what we do?

When gratitude is used as a means of keeping us in check, we may focus so much on being lucky to have a job at all that we don’t ask if it’s one that we want in the first place. Gratitude confused with a dependence on stability and a sense of identity may lead us to fundamentally misunderstand ourselves. Then, we end up feeling hollowed out and purposeless.

Parting Words

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the power of gratitude. I’m a textbook gratitude-journaler who truly appreciates what a “thank you” can do for both the giver and the recipient. I have seen the positive impact of gratitude on my outlook, resilience, and sense of empathy.

Gratitude lives up to its meaning when it creates a sense of expansiveness, warmth, and appreciation for who you are and the people, environments, and circumstances that help you stay true to that self.

My problem is with gratitude that is misused, whether by someone who wields it against us as a subtle way to keep us in check or by ourselves when we feel insecure, afraid, or undeserving.

If leading with gratitude limits you or those around you, perhaps it’s not gratitude at all.

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