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Pollyanna Leadership vs Wisely Managing Emotional Contagion

Fake Gratitude Until You Become Grateful

In a 2012 PSYCHOLOGY TODAY piece, we focused on the Basic Accounting Equation as a both an accounting tool and a leadership metaphor. Most PSYCHOLOGY TODAY readers have had experience in working with colleagues who have an unbalanced, negative tilt in analyzing issues. In our coaching work with such leaders, we use the Basic Accounting Equation as a cognitive behavioral structure to force them to articulate a balanced approach to issues confronting the organization: (1) here is what I like about your idea and (2) here is how your idea could provide even more value.

Initially, they are faking it. They are simply following a structure we have imposed. Over time and with positive feedback from the environment, this imposed pattern of verbalizations becomes a behavioral habit.

And when it becomes a habit, one can say they faked it until they became it.

Leadership vs Finding and Correcting Errors.

The nature of work these days is typically one in which time is spent seeking and correcting errors. Over time, it creates a negative bias towards solving problems. And if your world is surrounded by errors, how is it possible to be happy or to help others to be happy?

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough were interested in this question: does being grateful “cause” happiness or is gratitude a consequence of being happy? To test this question, 192 adults were randomly distributed into three groups. In the experimental group, participants were asked to write down five things in their life that they were grateful for during the past seven days. A second group was asked to write down five negative things that had bothered them during the past week. And a third group was simply instructed to write something in a weekly journal.

These gratitude or hassle reports were completed once a week for nine weeks. The groups were monitored for physical symptoms and overall satisfaction with life. At the conclusion of the nine weeks, there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups. The group induced to express gratitude had an overall more positive outlook on life and reported fewer physical symptoms. They also spent significantly more time exercising than those in the hassle conditions.

The authors’ conclusions were, “Manipulated expressions of gratitude per se may help to boost positive affect.”

In other words, you can fake gratitude until you become grateful.

A second study was conducted with a different group. This time the outcome measure was observer reports submitted by spouses or significant others. Those in the gratitude group were rated as showing significantly higher levels of positive attitude towards life. Thus the impact of physically writing down expression of gratitude has an impact on others.

Implications for Leaders.

Before you can manage others, you first need to manage yourself. One implication of this research is that you can "act" grateful and the mere acting infects you to become grateful. Positive and negative emotions are contagious. You can take advantage of managing positive emotional contagion using available technology.

There is an Iphone app that can be purchased for $2.99 on Itunes called the Gratitude Journal. On Android devices a simlar app is called Attitudes of Gratitude. Happier is another app that accomplishes the same objectives and is available for both Iphone and Android devices. Every day, you write down 3-5 things that you are grateful for, however trivial it might seem to you. The basic idea is to focus thoughts on the asset enhancement components of your life. The impact of the Emmons and McCullough research suggests that the mere exercise of writing down things you are grateful for will change your outlook on life. It then will alter how you are perceived by others.

You don’t need to pay anything to create a journal on your mobile device. Simply set it up as a file and use your calendar to provide you a daily reminder to write in the journal.

Thank You for Doing Your Job.

In Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, a waiter serves a hotel guest and the guest responds with, “Thank you.” Her husband remarks, “Do not thank the waiter. He is just doing his job.” How common is it that leaders refrain from praising direct reports on the grounds that the person was “just doing the job?”

An obvious implication of the Emmons and McCullough study is that the brain is wired to WANT expressions of gratitude. If positive emotions are contagious, then expressions of gratitude to employees for performing what you consider to be basic job functions may reward these employees to perform at higher levels in the future. The best feedback is face-to-face. The second best is on the phone. Use emails only as a last resort since it is so common to get emails. If you must send an electronic message, consider a free Iphone app like Thank You Pro. Android users can use Thank You Cards. Both apps will send your expression of gratitude as lovely thank you cards.

Start Your Meetings with Expressions of Gratitude.

We have participated in numerous board of director meetings as participants and observers. These board meetings typically begin with a neutral approval of the minutes of the last meeting and then descend into problems the organization is having. This is exactly what should not be done.

We recommend that the minutes be sent electronically to members in advance and approval be requested electronically. The Chair can then begin the meeting with an expression of gratitude. For example, “One of the reasons I am proud to be part of this physician practice group is that we are the ones who are defining quality care in our field. I am proud that Dr. Smith’s pioneering work has been mentioned d in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Smith is the type of physician who inspires me to be a better physician.”

In a team meeting one can say the following, “Before we begin I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jane for taking the initiative and getting Ron’s organization to agree to work with us. This is the kind of initiative that makes me proud of being part of this team.”

Your leadership mission is to infect your team with positive emotions.

It might be useful if you “feel” grateful. But it doesn’t matter. Simply “expressing” gratitude without necessarily feeling the emotion will be sufficient for the infection to take hold.

Pollyanna Leadership?

Pollyanna is an early 20th century book by Eleanor Porter that became a popular Walt Disney movie. The heroine is incurably optimistic in the face of grim reality. We are not proposing a world of Pollyanna Leaders. The world is dangerous. And the world is full of beautiful possibilities. Like the Basic Accounting Equation, both statements are equally valid. Grim reality and life’s possibilities both need to be confronted. The only choice for leaders is what they focus on first.

The empirical evidence is that leadership is a performance art. It is a decision to focus first on the positive or focus first on the negative. Fake it until you become it. Fake it until your team is infected.

Fake it until your team becomes it.


Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.

Stybel, L.J. & Peabody , M. (2012) You can be a simple leader: let the basic accounting equation be your guide. Psychology Today…


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