Creating a Culture of Gratitude

Mental Imagery

A view of clouds at high altitude.

Nonprofit volunteerism has been shown to improve organizational effectiveness and support the success of volunteer programs (Riketta 2008). One area that has received little attention, however, is the role of mental imagery in improving nonprofit volunteerism. In thought self-leadership mental imagery is the process of visualizing or imaging a successful performance in advance of the actual event (Manz 1992; Manz and Neck 1991; Neck and Manz 1992). This process has been found to be an effective tool for improving performance in a variety of domains, including sports, music, and business (Ding et al. 2011). In the context of nonprofit volunteering, mental imagery can be used to visualize oneself performing effectively in a given role. For example, a volunteer might imagine him or herself engaging successfully with with members of a committee, conducting online paperwork, or working productively on projects with other members. By doing so, the volunteer can increase his or her chances of having a successful experience. In addition, mental imagery can also be used to identify potential obstacles and develop plans for overcoming them. For example, if a volunteer imagines themselves struggling while giving a presentation, they can develop a contingency plan such as asking for for help from a co-presenter that steps in only when needed.

Weick (1979) made a similar argument. Manz (1992, p. 75) wrote that mental imagery is: “we can create and, in essence, symbolically experience imagined results of our behavior before we actually perform.” This can be useful for encouraging people to volunteer because they can see the direct impact of their actions on the organization or community they are helping. If more people were able to see the immediate benefits of their volunteer work, it is likely that there would be more volunteers overall. Therefore, mental imagery can be a powerful tool for encouraging people to get involved in volunteerism.

In the case of a young, high school athlete who was a high jumper, thought self-leadership and mental imagery were used in order to increase performance. The athlete began by focusing on her breathing and relaxing her body. She then imagined herself executing the perfect jump, clearing the bar with ease. As she continued to focus on her breathing and picture herself jumping, she felt her muscles relaxing and her mind clearing. By the time she reached the top of the jump, she was completely focused and confident in her ability to execute the jump perfectly. As a result, she cleared the bar easily and set a new personal best.

As the young athlete prepared for her final jump, she knew that the pressure was on. If she succeeded, she would win the national championship in her age group. However, if she missed, she would come up empty-handed. In order to succeed, she knew that she needed to focus her thoughts and use mental imagery to her advantage. She took a deep breath and pictured herself executing the perfect jump. She could see herself landing perfectly and hearing the cheers of the crowd. With this image in her mind, she confidently stepped up to the starting line and executed the jump flawlessly. Thanks to her thought self-leadership and mental imagery, she achieved her goal and won the national championship.

The athlete's focus was exclusively on the task at hand. She was engaged in thought self-leadership and mental imagery, preparing herself for the jump. While her parents, coaches, and other spectators felt the stress of the moment and the importance of the one jump in the accomplishment of this athlete’s goals, she was lined up and preparing for the final jump. The athlete's ability to control her thoughts and emotions enabled her to stay focused on what she needed to do to execute the jump successfully.

The student athlete had been using mental imagery successfully for several years, and it was a technique that she always fell back on when she was feeling nervous or distracted. It had helped her to stay calm and focused in a variety of situations, from big meet-ups to important exams. And it was helping her now. By picturing herself jumping confidently and clearing the bar, she was able to block out the noise and the distractions around her. When she took a deep breath, she felt her muscles relax as she visualized herself executing a perfect jump. When she opened her eyes, she felt confident and ready to take on the challenge. During the attempt, she smiles confidently at the coach and takes her position at the starting line. And then she's off, flying through the air and clearing the bar with ease. Another successful jump, thanks to the power of mental imagery.

When faced with difficulties and challenges in life, it is often helpful to take a step back and visualize what we want to achieve. This can help to block out the immediate distractions and pressures of the moment, and enable us to focus on our goals. By doing this, we can inspiring ourselves through thought self-leadership. This technique has been used by many successful people in history, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.


This page is an edited adaptation of an excerpt from the paper Utilizing Self-Leadership to Enhance Gratitude Thought Patterns. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Godwin, Jeffrey L., and Susan M. Hershelman. 2021. Utilizing Self-Leadership to Enhance Gratitude Thought Patterns. Administrative Sciences 11: 40.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay