Using gratitude to foster unity in your family

By Carol B. Wittmeyer, Christine Wittmeyer

What kind of feedback do you provide to your family and non-family employees? How much of it involves reprimanding or taking corrective actions? How often do you offer praise or encouragement? How often do you express gratitude?

Most likely, in the family or the business your feedback percentages go down as the list progresses from reprimand to gratitude. Yet research shows that gratitude is one of the most powerful strategies we have for effective leadership. Studies also suggest that gratitude makes people happier. Perhaps that is why it is such a popular topic in the management research arena today.

What is gratitude?

As we approach the holidays, we naturally give thanks for all that we appreciate—the loving people in our lives, the things we treasure, our health and a future full of opportunities. We acknowledge the sacrifices we made for all of these treasures and reflect on the high return on our investment. Our culture also encourages us to remember that others have made investments and sacrifices on our behalf, leaving us legacies often beyond belief.

Our ancestors wanted to ensure that the next generation had it better than theirs, so they delivered decades of hard work and sacrifices, uncompromising values and solid businesses that supported their family and many others. Their estates allow us to act on promising opportunities and support the causes that move us. To honor them, we promise to do the same for our children.

The idea of reflecting on what one is thankful for is at the heart of gratitude, which is derived from the Latin words gratia, meaning "favor," and gratus, meaning "pleasing." It has to do with kindness, generosity and even getting something for nothing.

Gratitude allows us to acknowledge others' efforts and successes. It feels good to give it and receive it. Gratitude implies humility as well—recognition that we could not be where we are in life without the contributions of others. Even highly intrinsically motivated people who prefer self-analysis over general praise enjoy hearing that someone else appreciated their actions.

In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, more than half the respondents said they were considering looking for new jobs because they felt undervalued. More than half the HR managers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said that showing appreciation for workers reduces turnover, and 49% said it increases profits. "When employees feel appreciated and understand that what they do is truly important, they are more motivated to go above and beyond their job descriptions to make a difference for their companies," the SHRM report said.

Many family companies have non-family employees who have been on the staff for decades. It's likely that these long-tenured employees feel valued. But what about your family members?

In a meeting of family business owners, we asked how many owners evaluated their children working in the business. Few hands went up. In our busy worlds, we tend to focus on giving feedback to our non-family employees. So who gives it to the family? Often, no one does.

In negotiating our often-tumultuous relationships in family businesses, we might ask ourselves if we can make our relationships better by being more grateful, or by taking more time and effort to express our gratitude.

Giving gratitude

You might think that gratitude involves just a simple thank-you, but if you want to maximize the effectiveness, there's more to it. Dr. Mark Goulston suggests that there are three parts to what he calls a "power thank you":

1. Be specific. Mention the specific behaviors you are grateful for. For example, "Sara, thank you for going out of your way to deliver Mrs. Smith's special shoe order to her yesterday and making sure the shoes fit her properly. Because of your thoughtfulness, she called me to say how pleased she was and how she recommends our business to everyone in her apartment building. Your service is what differentiates us from Macy's."

2. Be personal. Tell the person what his or her actions meant to you. "Sara, when you went to extra lengths to help our accountant resolve our invoicing problems with our best supplier, who was very upset, it said to me that you care passionately about our family business. Knowing that you are doing everything you can to keep our family dream alive and helping us to serve our customers to the best of our abilities means a lot to me. Excellent service is at the top of our values, and I'm grateful to you for embodying that in all that you do."

3. Acknowledge the person's contributions. Recap his or her personal efforts and sacrifices. "Sara, when you dropped what you were doing to turn your attention to our customer's problems, I know that required you to stay late and rearrange your family dinner plans, and yet you did not complain. That kind of gesture is symbolic and helps us all to stay motivated."

A culture of gratitude

Once you start giving gratitude, you will notice others around you beginning to do the same. University of Kentucky provost Christine Riordan in a Harvard Business Review blog suggests that leaders who regularly give gratitude help their staff work more effectively in teams. Employees who receive gratitude, Riordan writes, are more likely to understand the behaviors that help them be better contributors. They are also more likely to give gratitude to others, which makes them better colleagues. This works the same way with family teams.

Here are a few things you can do to build your gratitude aptitude:

1. Keep a gratitude journal. Each night, jot down two or three things for which you are grateful.

2. Write a gratitude letter. Think back on your life. Who made a significant contribution that you might not have fully acknowledged? For example, a few years ago, one of us (Carol) learned that her doctoral adviser had lost a daughter in a car wreck. This was the second daughter he had lost; the first one had had a rare disease. Carol thought about what she could do for the man who suffered this loss. She knew it wouldn't be right to tell him she understood or that she could relate in any way. So she wrote him a letter that summarized all the opportunities that had come her way because of her doctorate (such as great jobs, wonderful colleagues and travel experiences). She emphasized that she would not have been able to earn the degree had it not been for him. He wrote back to her, saying the letter was one of the most significant thank-yous he had received and that it came at a very meaningful time in his life. Receiving his gratitude was a profound experience for Carol.

3. Convene a gratitude session. In debriefing meetings for big projects, take time to give gratitude to those involved. Be specific and be inclusive. A word of caution: If you're going to give gratitude to someone in front of others, be careful about how it will affect that person. While gratitude might encourage the recipient, it also could foster jealousy or have other unintended consequences. In a team meeting, we suggest giving general gratitude for things the team did well together, and then giving gratitude privately to individuals. Over the years we've enjoyed watching our family members give gratitude to each other. This is perhaps one of the highest forms of expressing love.

Gratitude is hard work; it takes much practice to get it right. Have you thought about how you can start giving gratitude? Start with something simple. We would be remiss if we didn't remind you that most business plans are never executed, so just do it—today.

Carol B. Wittmeyer, Ph.D. is an associate professor of management at St. Bonaventure University. Christine Wittmeyer is a sales associate at her uncle and aunt's company, TurboPro, located in Alden, N.Y. She is an MBA candidate at St. Bonaventure University.

Copyright 2014 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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November/December 2014

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