Is Gratitude in Conflict with Progress?

How can we manage being both grateful and goal-oriented


Garrett Mintz , Mon 10 May 2021
I lead an Executive Horizontal Mentorship Program and part of what I do is facilitate group sessions where all the executives come together to share their insights, questions, and thoughts on a new topic each session.

For our March group meeting, the topic was leadership and how we can improve our ability to lead at our companies. These meetings tend to start with one topic, but eventually lead to fruitful, wide-ranging conversations that might not obviously connect to our initial topic. For this meeting, we eventually started discussing psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake. 

And then, one of the executives in our group brought up the point:

“It seems that progress and gratitude are in conflict with each other. If I am grateful, I am celebrating something that existed in the past. But if I am focused on progress, I am quickly dismissing the wins to move onto the next challenge.”

This is a fascinating point that I’ve been ruminating on for the past few weeks. There is a lot of research on the power of gratitude and its correlation with happiness. As a simple demonstration, really try to be grateful and angry at the same time and notice the contradiction between those feelings. 

There is also a lot of research validating the power of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals to achieve progress. 

Being grateful necessitates focusing on your past; being goal-oriented necessitates focusing on your future.

Can these mindsets work together?

This article is going to assess the merits of both practicing gratitude and goal-setting. I’ll consider their respective implications on business outcomes and analyze whether or not they are truly incompatible.

Gratitude

Gratitude is the public and private act of conscientiously and deliberately acknowledging something that has positively affected you. In a work setting, gratitude can inform your team of a job well done or show how much your team’s efforts meant to you. Gratitude gives your team purpose, a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging. It is an important signal showing the impact of their work and it shows that their work is respected and appreciated.

When frequently expressing gratitude for specific, meaningful actions is ingrained in the fabric of a culture, people tend to be happier and more likely to reach out to a coworker when something negative happens. A culture of gratitude helps build up rapport and unity across people and across teams.

People are also less likely to mistake feedback for criticism. When gratitude is an active part of the culture, it fosters emotional resilience for negative news because they know that there is no malice from the other person when receiving feedback. 

The point is gratitude helps build emotional resilience. And a culture of gratitude for specific, meaningful actions helps deflate passive-aggressive mindsets or people omitting information for fear of hurt feelings. A culture of gratitude supports open, honest communication, resilient mindsets, and high-quality work. 

Goal Setting

SMART goal-setting means setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound activities (SMART) for achieving your goals. This helps you identify a specific vision and create a measurable and achievable plan for something you intend to accomplish. SMART goal-setting helps teams plan for the future, improve performance, and identify specific issues and solutions for the problems they encounter. 

SMART goal setting improves the efficiency and effectiveness of teams. It empowers people to envision what they would like to accomplish and helps them create a specific step-by-step plan that will accomplish that outcome. 

Can gratitude and goal setting work together?

 The Executive Horizontal Mentorship group that started this discussion seems to think that they are compatible, and I am inclined to agree. As mentioned previously, a culture of gratitude can boost the emotional resiliency of teammates, and this makes the identification of challenges faster and finding solutions easier. 

When teams don’t have a culture of gratitude, issues start popping up all over the place: an employee trying to solve a tough problem alone; a coworker spending too much time crafting their feedback to avoid hurt feelings; a teammate happy to criticize problems without caring to offer solutions. These brief examples are only the tip of the iceberg.  

The ability to identify these challenges and properly communicate them with the team helps support the work of setting SMART goals to solve the issues at hand. Open, honest, grateful communication helps your team look into the future, and SMART goals help your team leverage the present to improve the future. 

Taking intentional time for gratitude on a consistent basis creates pathways and lines of communication that make problem-solving and SMART goal setting more effective. So, while the two ideas of Progress and Gratitude seemed to be in contradiction at first glance, hopefully, I’ve shown you how that is simply not the case. Instead, Progress and Gratitude build off each other to create a strong, productive, and engaged workplace. 


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