The Vice Of Ingratitude

November 30, 2011

For some strange reason, the Thanksgiving holiday this year has got me thinking more than ever about gratitude. I’ve been chewing on what it means to be thankful, why we have a need to “give” thanks, and how we respond to others in both the presence and absence of gratitude. I’ve found a very interesting recent study that tries to explain why gratitude expressions motivate us to help others. I will share with you the findings of that study in another blog soon.

There is an entire chapter on gratitude written by Robert Emmons and Charles Shelton in my Handbook of Positive Psychology. They describe gratitude as a psychological state, which means it’s essentially an attitude. Like any attitude, it is subject to both change and development, which means you can chose to learn to be more grateful. “A grateful outlook does not require a life full of material comforts but rather an interior attitude of thankfulness regardless of life circumstances” (p. 465).

What Emmons and Shelton say about ingratitude really grabbed my attention. They define ingratitude as “the failure to acknowledge the benevolence of others” (p. 463) and conclude that being chronically ungrateful toward others is a character defect. They specifically identify narcissism as a personality trait at work in those that rarely give thanks to others:

People with narcissistic tendencies erroneously believe they are deserving of special rights and privileges. Along with being demanding and selfish, they exhibit an exaggerated sense of self-importance, which leads them to expect special favors without assuming reciprocal responsibilities…The sense of entitlement, combined with insensitivity to the needs of others engenders, whether consciously or unconsciously intended, interpersonal exploitation. In short, if one is entitled to everything, then one is thankful for nothing. (p. 463).

I think the proven ability to recognize when others have earned our sincere expression of gratitude needs to be a litmus test for promotion to positions of leadership. Promote people with a track record of ingratitude toward their co-workers and team members and you will legitimize interpersonal exploitation as an acceptable leadership tactic.

We might not be able to change the narcissists in our organizations, but we can certainly take action to keep them from assuming formal positions of power and authority over others. Gratitude is a character strength that we should learn to develop in ourselves and value more in our leaders.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Donald Robak says:

    Bret, I like what you’ve said – very much. And at the same time, I’m thinking you are approaching it from an upside down point of view.
    You see, I think gratitude is vitally important to our well being, and that ingratitude leaves us in a state of anger, deprivation and resentment. Each of these are very debilitating emotions, and only serve to drag us lower into the same abyss as the OWS crowd.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Donald. You are very correct about the value of expressing gratitude. But there is an explanation why some are chronically ungrateful, and that explanation will likely be something about their personality structure. The cause is stable, but the emotional response by definition will be episodic. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Mary Martin says:

    Interesting and dead-on. Nothing is worse than seeing an unappreciative, narcissistic person promoted. A recently departed VP comes to mind. She was so toxic that most managers either hated reporting to her, or like me, would have demanded a new boss rather than report to her.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mary. Thanks for validating this by sharing your thoughts! Bret