As part of our series, Rising to the Challenge: Values-Driven Leadership During the Coronavirus, we sat down with some of the leaders and thinkers we most respect, to get their thoughts on what this moment means and how we can face it with hope and resilience.
Here, we share Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Kim Cameron, one of the world’s foremost researchers and thinkers in the area of organizational culture and positive leadership. Cameron is a Professor Emeritus of Management and Organization at the University of Michigan, where he cofounded the Center for Positive Organizations. Find Part 1, which covered survivor’s guilt and envy when organizations downsize, at this link.
This interview has been abridged and edited for readability. You can find an audio version of the full interview here.
Please note, as may be evident in the conversation, this interview was recorded prior to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.
Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson: You’ve written about the importance of gratitude as an individual practice that, regardless of circumstances, can transform your experience and your wellbeing in the moment. Tell me about it and how it applies to our current context of the coronavirus.
Kim Cameron: This is difficult to live in all circumstances, of course, but one of the best pieces of advice I have to give is to look for the silver lining. Look for things that are going well, celebrate what’s right with the world.
I’m going to give you a two or three studies to explain. In one study, there are a group of students who are in a classroom. The students are all asked to keep a journal every day. Half of the students are assigned to write in their journal three things for which they are grateful or the best three best things that happened today. The other half of these students are assigned to simply keep a normal daily event journal: write down events and relationships, problems they faced, whatever.
At the end of the semester, several studies were conducted. One of them was to give everybody a flu shot. Turns out, one week later, those keeping a gratitude journal are healthier. They had more antibodies in their system than the others. People were given a mental acuity test by asking them to memorize information or come up with some sophisticated rules for difficult decisions. There is more mental acuity displayed in the first group than in the second. In fact, grade point average is almost a half a grade higher among that gratitude group.
In another study, people were given a creativity task. Something like, how many uses can you think of for a brick, or a ping pong ball, or a piece of paper? Again, the gratitude group had a broader variety of ideas.
Gratitude is a very well researched topic now, that is, to concentrate on something for which you’re grateful. In fact, one of the most effective therapeutic techniques has been not only mindfulness meditation (loving kindness meditation probably is the most effective) but also to count your blessings. This means , think of all the bad things going on in your life. Think of all the problems you’re facing. Think of all the stress you’re encountering. Now, flip those and ask, “What am I learning? What should I be thankful for? What’s not occurred that could have? How can I be thankful for even the most difficult situations?”
I’m not a therapist or a psychiatrist, but it’s an interesting and very effective therapy that people are using, especially in crises like we are facing right now. Gratitude can seem kind of syrupy, but it actually matters in terms of health, resilience, and performance.
Ludema and Johnson: Do you know of any teams that are doing gratitude practices together?
Cameron: I do. There are a number of organizations with whom we have done some work or research. For example, there’s an experiment going on right now at the University of Michigan involving the business and finance group. That’s approximately 3,000 employees at the university and a very diverse group. They are colleagues from groundskeepers and custodians through people managing multimillion-dollar investment portfolios. So white collar and blue collar employees, all over the campus. A diverse group.
They decided they were going to implement something they simply referred to as “positive leadership culture.” We gave them an assignment to “infect” 90% of the employees in business and finance in 90 days, the 90 in 90 challenge. Well, what does infect mean? It means gain the ability to teach this new set
of values, this new set of principles and implement a 1% change directed at positive leadership. They exceeded the 90 in 90 challenge. All the empirical markers are up, as you might expect. But one of the best things is the custodians and the people who are out in the field, who are in the tunnels, the people in the offices and the administration, they’re all keeping gratitude journals.
The former head coach at the University of Michigan basketball team, John Beilein, who was hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers to be their basketball coach, keeps a gratitude journal. His athletes keep gratitude journals. He starts every entry in his journal with a scripture, by the way, which I think is admirable. John is probably known as the best bench coach strategist in the NCAA. He’s quite an amazing guy, just a wonderful human being who’s decided to take gratitude seriously.
We have at Michigan the head swimming and diving coach, Mike Bottom, who is also an Olympic coach. He was in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics. He has the swimmers keeping gratitude journals, and they win the Big 10 Championships almost every year. These are Olympic athletes, getting really serious about trying to perform every day. Mike says, “you know what, I’ve got a practice that will help you.” And it sure does.
Ludema and Johnson: Gratitude seems especially important right now, now that we’re with our families in home isolation. Reminding ourselves of what we’re grateful for can help keep us calm when we’re a little frayed around the edges.
Cameron: Frayed around the edges, that’s right. Gratitude is just kind of a grounding technique.
I have a friend who’s little daughter was going to kindergarten, and she just hated it. Didn’t like it at all. Her mom thought, “I don’t know what to do with her because she dislikes school so much.”
The girl’s teacher suggested that the mom get a sticker book and when the little girl came home, her mother would say, “All right, take a sticker and show me the best thing that happened to you today.” As it turns out, her little daughter started really looking for things that she loved to do at school and that would be represented by a sticker. Her mother said they ended up together calling the sticker book her gratitude journal. The little girl couldn’t write it, but she could put stickers in this book to show what she was grateful for. The mother said somehow it resonated with that sweet little girl.
Ludema and Johnson: Gratitude is an all ages practice. I have one more question for you. This is a time of unprecedented disruption, but whenever things change, there’s a chance they can change for the better. What are you hopeful for, that we could come out of this period being a better world, being a better place around our offices? What are you hopeful for?
Cameron: You’ve highlighted it perfectly. We know it will not be the same. We will do interesting things. Technologically, we will do interesting things in terms of leading people, helping people lead themselves, helping people learn how to thrive better on their own as opposed to being dependent on someone else.
I think those kinds of things will happen. But my hope is, and my wish as well, is that we will use this crisis to come together. That rather than dividing us, my hope is that the crisis will cause us to identify our common core: the things we most believe in and trust and the things that bring us together and that we share. That’s what I would hope. That we emerge not only stronger but more loving and collaborative and a group of people who say I’ve learned to love and appreciate you more than I did before.