Improving Performance with Gratitude and Optimism

Key Takeaways 

  • Being grateful and optimistic can improve organizational performance.
  • Gratitude and optimism are learned behaviors that can be improved upon over time, and leaders can help their teammates learn them.

As many of us have, I found myself in a moment of holiday season reflection recently, thinking about all that I’m grateful for and why I’m optimistic about the future. Reflecting on this gratitude and optimism made me feel, well…happy. And motivated!

It also caused me to wonder about how optimism and gratitude impact performance — and whether we can apply it when leading others. It didn’t take long to uncover research that highlighted some interesting findings:

Gratitude and Optimism Can Lead to Improved Organizational Performance

A 2011 Harvard mental health letter cited a University of Pennsylvania study that measured the results of two groups soliciting alumni for donations. The first group made phone calls as usual, while the second received a pep talk from their director of giving before making any calls. This second group made 50 percent more phone calls over the following week after hearing this expression of gratitude.[i]

Similarly, Daniel Goleman cites research by renowned psychologist Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman finding that insurance salesmen who were more optimistic by nature sold 37 percent more insurance in their first year and had twice the retention rate than those who were pessimists.[ii]

Gratitude and Optimism are Learned Behaviors – And Leaders Can Help

What then can leaders do to help others improve vis-a-vis gratitude and optimism?

Gratitude—The earlier-referenced Harvard letter discusses practical steps like encouraging others to keep a gratitude journal, write thank you notes and other actions that cause deliberate focus. Dr. Heidi Grant, global director of research and development at the NeuroLeadership Institute and associate director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center takes it one step further, urging leaders to strengthen relationships by focusing on the benefactor of grateful actions — rather than on how the act of gratitude made us feel. This effort on ‘other-praising’ might sound like, “You’re really good at…” or, “You go out of your way to…” versus ‘self-benefit’ displays of gratitude that might sound like, “It made me happy when…” or, “It made me feel better that…” Research indicates that this difference in approach actually helps those around us feel more effective, admired and cared for.[iii]

Optimism—Drawing a link between optimism and self-efficacy, Goleman finds that optimism can be learned and improved upon by increasing our belief that we’ve mastered the skills needed to accomplish the tasks that we’re faced with. This allows us to conclude that leaders’ efforts to increase the competence and confidence of those around them can lead to increased optimism and improved results.

The holidays are a great time to reflect on the things that we are grateful for and to appreciate the reasons we can be optimistic about the future. When applied properly, this reflection and appreciation can also allow leaders to help lift others up with that same gratitude and optimism.



[ii] Goleman, Daniel. (1995). Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.