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Leadership Development

Leadership Lessons: The Science of Gratitude


leaders can increase engagement with a 'Thank you'

Leadership lessons are everywhere, but imagine my surprise when I learned that saying “thank you” was not just a social nicety, but a more complex social emotion and a powerful leadership commodity.

Being a psychologist, I’m always interested when simple human interactions have deep neurological underpinnings. Recently, a series of studies in biology and cognitive science have focused on the function of a hormone in our body called Oxytocin that affects a number of qualities such as as trust, respect, generosity and empathy.

Sometimes called the “love hormone,” or the “trust molecule”, the prosocial benefits of Oxytocin have long been known. However, new research findings show that when you express gratitude to someone, Ocytocin levels increase, suggesting a powerful tool for increasing engagement with another is at our disposal just for the price of a “thank you.”

In The Leadership Challenge Model: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, one of the Practices is “Encourage the Heart” which includes giving praise, acknowledging the contribution of others, and expressing confidence in them. They note:

"Not enough people make enough use of the most powerful but inexpensive two-word reward, the 'Thank You.'"

As a leadership coach I have found that the behaviors of gratitude and praise do not always come easy to leaders. I encourage them to create a deeper and more deliberate practice of doing so. This seemingly simple behavioral interaction has been shown to enhance the credibility of a leader and boost motivation and helping behavior in others. We call this engagement!

Perhaps understanding the physiology of their “grateful brain” will help leaders value the need to cultivate this practice with a deeper commitment. Behind the social etiquette of saying “thank you” is an essential leadership capability with far reaching personal and professional benefits both for the leader and constituents.

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Holly Seaton

Holly Seaton is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.