Tell Noble Stories and Practice Gratitude

Our Ask the Coach series shares perspectives from experienced executive and team coaches. This week we’re talking career paths, storytelling and the practice of gratitude with leadership coach Matt Taylor, the founder and CEO of the Washington, DC-based Noble Story Group. (Thanks, Matt! We’re grateful for *you.*)

RB: How would you describe the work you do, and how did you come to it?

MT: I have been developing leaders for 14 years and teaching and leading in the K-12 education sector for 25. I would describe what I do now as coaching and training leaders to realize their full potential by building their emotional intelligence. But that has been a journey! 

“Coaching” was part of what I thought I did as a school principal. It wasn’t until I received some great training in an EI-based coaching methodology that I realized most of what I was doing as a principal was direct teaching of instructional skills. I did some consulting with my assistant principals, but I did very little actual coaching. 

I was running a principal development program focused on change leadership when I got my training. It opened my eyes to an entirely different level of development that I could engage my leaders in. Their internal obstacles that had previously seemed like fixed traits to me suddenly seemed movable. I shifted my focus from teaching skills to building self-awareness and managing triggers, emotions and beliefs that were leading to self-limiting behaviors. Suddenly I was helping people to not only grow in their biggest leadership obstacles, but also their biggest obstacles as human beings. It felt like the most important work that I had ever done.  

RB: What’s one of the most common leadership challenges you see among your clients?

MT: My organization is called the Noble Story Group for a reason. I have found that the most common obstacles to resonant leadership are the stories that leaders tell about themselves and the people they lead.  

Our internal stories about ourselves and other people determine our reality. We create these stories to make meaning and explain what we experience. In challenging situations with people we may not know, or who don’t belong to our group, or who we haven’t built trust with, we tend to create stories that magnify our fears. 

The same can be said about our stories about ourselves. When we are feeling safe and in our element our stories about ourselves are positive. When we feel out of our element and unsafe, our stories about the context and ourselves tend to reflect our biggest fears.  

The good news is that we have the ability to change our mindsets about other people, and even about ourselves. We can make ourselves flip our stories once we are aware that we have them. We can essentially train ourselves to build and hold onto “noble stories” rather than negative stories. Managing our stories is one of the most powerful things that we can do to manage our self-limiting mindsets.   

RB: I love that your work focuses so much on emotional intelligence. At RallyBright we believe it’s crucial to team outperformance. What do you see as the relationship between gratitude and EQ? 

MT: One of the core domains of Emotional Intelligence is self-management, which in a nutshell is our ability to manage the stuff that gets in our way (triggers, emotions, self-limiting beliefs and behaviors) and leverage the things that give us our power (our values, care, skills, etc.). Over time I have built a bank of effective self-management strategies that I share with leaders I coach and train. Gratitude is one of those powerful self-management strategies. When we are emotionally triggered and in danger of defaulting to “bad habits,” the practice of gratitude can shift our energy and our stories. There are few positive emotional forces more powerful than gratitude.  

RB: Research shows that people are least likely to practice gratitude in the workplace, despite feeling a desire to be thanked more at work themselves. How important do you think gratitude at work is, and what are authentic, high-impact ways people can be better at expressing it?  

MT: I think expressing gratitude at work is a powerful way to connect with our colleagues and ground ourselves in our own humanity. This is really important in what are often very fast-paced, high-pressure environments where we can become emotionally siloed and consumed by work. This is very true of the urban public schools where I have taught and led over the years. Teachers get to the end of the day and they have left it all on the field, so to speak.  

The strongest school team I’ve ever been part of had a regular gratitude practice, for both adults and students. At least once a week our staff made space for “shout-outs.” This was something we all took seriously and thought about in advance. Because we were invested these shout-outs were personal and deeply felt. There were many beautiful and emotional moments over time, and they always brought us together. Some of my best memories are of times when students expressed gratitude toward their teachers and teachers expressed gratitude towards their students. These moments connected us, and they reminded us of who we all are as people.  

I am not an expert on learning how to practice gratitude, but here’s what I know about building habits. We need to connect the habit to something we want in our lives. I find this kind of energy is best built through the emotions – actually feeling the connection. Experiencing gratitude – both expressing and receiving – is the best way to understand how it can help you become who you want to be.   

Second, to build a practice (a habit) we have to intentionally practice it over time. That’s how the brain works. We build neural pathways through experience. The more we do something, the stronger the neural pathway. At work it helps to have structures that keep us focused. The best kind of structures are rituals and traditions that reinforce culture and common identity like the “shout out.” 

RB: What’s a trend you’re noticing within the field of leadership development these days? 

MT: I am seeing more and more investment in the social-emotional needs of people at work. This makes me really happy! Organizations across sectors are focusing on wellness practices like mindfulness and relational competencies like candor, connection and trust. 

While this focus on the human experience is great, I also see big blind spots when it comes to tackling sustainability. Organizations don’t yet seem ready to hold up the mirror on the culture of work and the organizational structures that are contributing to our current epidemic of chronic burnout. I am seeing a collective reluctance to confront the competing commitments that underlie this challenge.  

RB: We’re in the final six weeks of the calendar year. What do you recommend leaders and/or teams focus on at this time of year? 

MT: The last weeks of the year are high-stress weeks at work and at home. I recommend leaders think about where their teams are on an emotional level over the next six weeks. Keep that radar on and stay focused on where your people are. Set your team targets for where you want your people to be based on what you find. Then make tactical leadership decisions based on what your people need from you to get there.  

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