Illustration of people working together to create a heart-shaped topiary tree in a garden setting.

You and your team are trudging through yet another month of working during a pandemic. What is this? Month 829? It certainly feels like it. 

As the leader, maybe you’ve noticed that spirits on your team have taken a steep nosedive. While your employees used to be enthusiastic and engaged, they now seem detached and despondent. 

What can you do to boost morale and combat the mounting grief and anxiety, especially now that pizza parties and team off-sites aren’t an option? Well, the secret might lie in this one simple word: gratitude. We’re going to share some unique ways to practice gratitude as a team, but first, let’s talk about why you should.

There’s all sorts of good news about gratitude

Given the current state of the world, it may a little more challenging that usual to find things to be thankful for. Even so, practicing gratitude on your team offers a number of benefits.

Stress less and smile more

For starters, gratitude reduces stress and boosts happiness. Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and one of the leading researchers on gratitude, found that thankfulness is related to 23 percent lower levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. 

Why? “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions such as envy, resentment, regret, and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Emmons said in his research. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.”

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Build a more resilient brain

Mental toughness is another big benefit. One study of Vietnam War veterans identified a correlation between veterans with high levels of gratitude and lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

While your team isn’t dealing with war trauma, increased resiliency will help them continue to thrive despite the numerous distractions (cough, cough—pandemic, mandatory remote work, politics) that could tank their spirits. 

Enjoy exponential benefits by sharing gratitude

Gratitude has also been linked to improved physical health, better-quality sleep, and boosted self-esteem. But now, get ready for the icing on the cake: gratitude is most effective when it’s shared with others. 

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, gave study participants different weekly assignments. He compared each of those tasks against a control assignment of writing about early memories. When the weekly assignment involved writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone, the participants showed a huge increase in their happiness scores. 

Want to practice gratitude on your team? Let’s make it happen

How ‘bout that? Gratitude is something that you should not only be practicing individually, but as a team. Here are five ways you can make it happen. 

1. Weave gratitude into your retrospectives

Your retrospective is all about evaluating your previous sprint or project and improving the next one. Fortunately, you can easily incorporate gratitude into whatever retrospective format you’re using.

Maybe your team already identifies what went well and what didn’t. Add in a third bucket for what you’re thankful for. Or, perhaps your team loves the start, stop, continue framework (where you figure out what to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing). Change it to start, stop, continue, thank you. 

This doesn’t need to be anything complicated. Even five minutes of your retrospective is enough to show some real appreciation for your wins, progress, and contributions from team members. 

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2. Set aside time for “snaps” or acknowledgements

Here’s an alarming statistic: Only one in three workers strongly agree that they received recognition for doing good work in the past seven days. 

Things have likely become even more dire since the start of the pandemic, while many of us are working remotely and feeling less visible to our managers and colleagues. 

You and your team need to be intentional about recognizing a job well done. Set aside a few minutes at the start of your team meetings to let team members acknowledge the accomplishments of others. 

This is something that teams do here at Atlassian. We’ll even take it up a notch by literally snapping our fingers to celebrate a win. It seems silly, but it’s a fun way to recognize other people’s contributions. 

3. Start with a gratitude-flavored icebreaker

An icebreaker at the start of a meeting can help your team members feel more connected to one another and kickstart a collaborative spirit. But, rather than defaulting to a random question or exercise, use an icebreaker to express some gratitude.

Not sure how to get started? We set up a Trello board for this exact purpose.

Screenshot of the Guided Gratitude Practice template for Trello

At the start of the meeting, pick a prompt for your team to focus on or let each team member pick a card that speaks to them. Then, take turns sharing your answers. 

Your team will start your meeting with some well-deserved praise and a sense of appreciation. That can boost spirits way more than your typical question about a desert island. 

4. Gain new perspective on perceived failures

Your team has to learn their fair share of hard lessons. These inevitable stumbles are more than a way to improve – they can be a surprising outlet to practice gratitude.

Wait … what? How could you possibly be thankful for a flop or a misstep? Well, it’s as straightforward as asking a few questions during a post-mortem or troubleshooting session.

Dr. Emmons recommends posing the following questions to your team:

  • Can we find ways to be thankful for what happened to us now, even though we were not thankful at the time it happened?
  • What ability did the experience draw out of us that surprised us?
  • Are there ways we have become a better workplace because of this?
  • Has the experience removed an obstacle that previously prevented us from feeling grateful?

These questions will help you find the silver linings in even the most challenging experiences, including your team’s failures.

5. Flip the script on your apologies

Even the seemingly small changes can make a big difference when it comes to gratitude on your team. One example? Swapping out an “I’m sorry” with a “thank you.”

This concept went viral in a Tumblr post a few years ago, and it’s still a great way to make appreciation more constant on your team. Here are just a few examples:

  • Instead of saying “I’m so sorry for screwing that up,” say “Thanks for catching that.”
  • Instead of saying “I’m sorry I’m late,” say “Thanks for waiting.”
  • Instead of saying “I’m sorry for bothering you,” say “Thanks for chipping in.”

See the difference? This small word change can alters our perception of these events. And, as Dr. Alex Korb writes in his book The Upward Spiral, the act of a “thank you” forces us to notice and appreciate what we have. 

This produces “intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present,” writes Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, a psychiatric counselor, in a piece for Positive Psychology

Make gratitude your team’s not-so-secret sauce

We’re all dealing with a lot right now, and it’s easy for a doom and gloom attitude to take over your team. One study from on-demand mental healthcare platform, Ginger, found that 69 percent of workers say the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their entire careers. 

Preserving mental health and combating stress and anxiety don’t have simple answers, but they need to be priorities for team leaders now more than ever.

One great place to start? Gratitude. Fostering a culture of appreciation can reduce stress, increase happiness, boost mental toughness, and help your team remember the positives.

Is it a fix-all for all of the pressures weighing down on your team? Not quite. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction. 

5 creative ways to practice gratitude as a team