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Aug 26, 2015

Janice Kaplan’s new book The Gratitude Diaries examines the effects of gratitude in the workplace.

She cites a London School of Economics paper that analyzed more than 50 studies that looked at what gets people motivated to work. They found that we give our best effort when:

  • The work gets us interested and excited.
  • We feel the work is providing meaning and purpose.
  • Others appreciate what we’re doing.

Despite that, workplaces rank shockingly low among places people are likely to express gratitude.

In a 2013 John Templeton survey of over 2,000 full-time employees, 80 percent of them agreed that receiving gratitude for their work makes them work harder, but only 10 percent admitted to actually expressing gratitude to colleagues every day. Over 90 percent of employees felt that bosses who showed gratitude were more successful overall.

Yes, gratitude is a powerful motivator, but there are still some workplaces that haven’t figured out how to make it part of their culture.

Practice makes perfect

Giving and receiving gratitude has been shown to improve our mental and physical health, enhance our empathy and reduce our aggression levels, as well as improve our self-esteem and overall mental strength. Beyond its therapeutic effects, gratitude motivates high performance, puts meaning into our work, and is just the decent thing to do – the first requisite for creating a positive work culture, and an absolute deal-breaker when it comes to organizational success.

But this doesn’t mean the companies that are falling behind are ungrateful – more likely they’re just out of practice.

There is an art to gratitude just like anything else, and if you’re doing it wrong employees will notice. Terry Wong of The Wall Street Journal put together an excellent sidebar rundown of the five most common clichés in workplace gratitude. Don’t be like these bosses:

  • The Automatic PilotOnly shows gratitude by making the rounds during a regular time slot, usually once a week. Gratitude is much more effective when it’s meaningful individual gestures, not all lumped into one task.
  • The OvercompensatorNever thanks anyone, but suddenly can’t stop sometimes, thanking everyone for everything.Consistency and reliability are the keys to building trust. Without them, gratitude cannot take hold in the culture.
  • The Double-TalkerTorpedoes every “thank you” with a “but”. “Thanks for doing a great job on that report, BUT there were a few typos.” Thanks for the compliment, BUT when you qualify your compliments they cease to be compliments.
  • The LatecomerWaits a week before acknowledging top performance. Strike while the iron is hot so people can connect the praise to the work right away, giving it real meaning.
  • The MachiavellianOffers praise only to get something in return, i.e. working late. If you’re doing this, stop immediately and re-examine your life choices.

Take it from the top

Manager bears the brunt of the responsibility for spreading gratitude in the workplace, but not all of it. Companies as a whole must have a written strategy of some kind to guide recognition and gratitude efforts, and they have to take it as seriously as their bottom line.

Harvey Deutschendorf of the ever-readable Fast Company blog made up a great list of 5 simple tips on how to support a gratitude culture in your workplace:

  1. It must be modeled at the top. Everything starts with leadership, and employees take their social cues from superiors in the office. So your C-level and management types have to be living the gratitude culture every day for anything to happen.
  2. Make it specific and authentic. It takes time and effort to notice specific things about the person receiving praise, Deutschendorf argues, and if you’re only giving praise at group settings or treating it as a chore, you’re not truly connecting with your employees. Specific and authentic praise is the only praise that carries meaning.
  3. Ensure there are no ulterior motives. Praise and gratitude should not be used as tools of manipulation, capitulation, or coercion. Deutschendorf relates a story about a manager of his who would only give out recognition in front of his own boss, resulting in many employees feeling used instead of thanked. Recognizing an employee’s accomplishment is an act of complete selflessness, and employees can tell the difference.
  4. Tailor it to the individual. Avoid generic praise at all costs. Managers must be willing to internalize and consider each employee’s accomplishments, and be able to communicate their gratitude in a specific and meaningful way that recognizes the individual.
  5. Create opportunities to think about and share gratitude. Give your employees an easy process to recognize each other in the workplace. Start your monthly meetings by telling everyone what you are grateful for. Highlight employee achievements and praise in the company newsletter. If you want gratitude to be an important theme in your workplace, create the discussions and opportunities to make it so.

Double the message

In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, professional advisors were asked to give notes to students on their cover letters for a job application. After receiving the notes, the students then asked the professionals for help with another letter.

Around 32 percent of them agreed to help the second time, but when students added a single line to their note about their first feedback – “Thank you so much! I am really grateful!” – a whopping 66 percent of the advisors agreed to help. Even a small expression of gratitude, in the form of a written note, doubled the response.

Gratitude, when done right, is powerful, no two ways about it.

And gratitude costs next to nothing, but the potential rewards are huge.

True value

Sometimes it can be the only thing keeping your employees engaged with their work. People have an intrinsic need to be recognized, and when it goes unfulfilled it can make us feel like we don’t exist. When that happens, engagement and motivation are off the table.

To get the true value out of your employees, the first step is to treat them like they are truly valued.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.