About a year ago, I asked three co-workers a question that would change the nature of our working lives and, perhaps, the course of history. Here is a screenshot of the Slack message I sent at 6:13pm on May 22, 2018:
What is “roses and thorns,” you might ask, as did my initially skeptical colleagues? It’s a ritual familiar to many a former summer-camp kid, wherein, just before bedtime, while the crickets chirp softly outside the cabin, everyone climbs onto their rickety bunk beds and shares one good thing that happened that day, and one bad thing that happened. A high and a low. A rose and a thorn.
“That sounds…awkward,” my co-worker Elijah responded.
“IT’S HOW GIRLS BOND,” I said.
“Awkwardly?” he asked.
“By sharing our innermost secrets,” I explained.
And so a new tradition was born.
After we shared our roses and thorns that first day, my co-worker Jackie asked if we could do it again the next evening. It fast became my favorite workplace ritual. (The other three like it too; I double-checked.) It’s brought me closer with my colleagues and given me a daily window into the minutiae of their lives and jobs.
Stepping back each day to reflect on my feelings about work has also had a transformative effect on my own career. Since rose-thorn prompts me to notice what makes me feel good and what brings me down, I’ve been able to spot patterns (I love writing! I hate administrative work!) and make better decisions accordingly.
One of the best things about a good round of rose-thorn, I’ve found, is that the structure of the question presumes that a certain balance exists in each of our days. It teaches you that no matter what kind of sour mood you’re in, you can usually find at least one nice moment in the past 24 hours if you bother to search for it—even it’s as small as a co-worker who complimented your handwriting, or a really good burrito you had for lunch.
Conversely, the question creates space to acknowledge the inevitable frustrations and challenges that are bound to arise, no matter how much you love your job. “It helps to make venting productive by forcing you to prioritize and articulate the one thing that you struggled with that day,” says Jackie. With rose-thorn, you release just a splash of negativity instead of a torrent.
As it turns out, we’re not the only people who enjoy bonding over rose-thorn in an office instead of bunk beds. Liz Fosslien, the head of content at workplace-software startup Humu and the co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, reveals that she does the ritual with a few colleagues, too.
Fosslien points out that the rose and the thorn each serve an important purpose. On the flowery end of the spectrum, expressing gratitude has been shown to boost our sense of well-being and happiness. Keeping track of the tiny pleasures of the workday, and noticing how they add up over time, also helps morale. “There’s lots of research that shows if we take the time to celebrate small wins, we feel a sense of progress, and that’s very motivating,” she says.
Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychological researcher and consultant Steven J. Kramer call this the “progress principle.” As they write in the Harvard Business Review, describing their study of roughly 12,000 daily diary entries from 238 workers across seven companies, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.” When I tell co-workers that I’m excited about a scientist I just interviewed or that I had a good brainstorming meeting with my team, for example, I’m simultaneously amping myself to keep working away on those projects.
As for the stabby thorns we all encounter in life, Fosslien says that creating a space where it’s okay—even expected—to share our gripes is a good idea. “When there’s pressure to always be positive, that’s not a healthy work environment,” she says. Indeed, studies have shown that pressuring workers to fake happy feelings is bad for their health. In a 2016 ruling against T-Mobile, the US National Labor Relations Board even found that asking employees to act happy all the time constitutes a violation of their rights. “Having an explicit place to say, ‘This isn’t going well’ allows for vulnerability and bonds you with colleagues, and it’s kind of normalizing the harder things about work,” Fosslien adds.
My co-worker Kira notes that thinking of her rose and thorn at the end of the day can even change her perception of events. “Thinking about your day on the whole helps me think about whether something was really that big a deal,” she says. “Like, if I wouldn’t even consider it my thorn, it’s probably not worth worrying about.” In this way, instating a rose-thorn routine may be a particularly soothing option for anyone prone to obsessing over stuff they may have done wrong at work, which according to my informal survey of humanity includes everyone who is not Elon Musk or Bret Easton Ellis. (And honestly maybe even them, secretly, too.)
If you’re intrigued by the idea of rose-thorn but find the language a little too squishy, Fosslien suggests some alternative language that may be better suited to more formal settings. One example: “What’s something you’ve accomplished, and what’s a challenge you’re facing?” It’s a question that can have the added benefit of prompting a co-worker to realize they can help with whatever problem you have at hand. Another question some managers like to ask the people they supervise is: “Did you feel supported last week, and how can I best support you this week?” This question is useful, Fosslien says, because it encourages both parties to reflect on the past and then look forward.
For my own part, I’m happy to have stumbled upon rose-thorn in a workplace setting. I know it’s a bit cheesy, but isn’t that true of most things that involve human connection?
This daily ritual of ours has turned out to be a bit like a little TV show I can follow every day, rooting for the characters’ successes and empathizing with their problems—only the heroes of the story are also my real-life friends. Of course, I’m in the TV show with them, and all of us are the screenwriters, rewriting our storylines each day with a perspective we don’t always have in the moment.