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Gratitude: The Business Case

(posted: December 1st, 2017)

Why should we thank employees for doing their job? Or our coworkers for doing what they get paid to do? Isn't a paycheck their thank you?

We say "Thank you" to the barista for our morning latte, even though she is just doing her job. We say "Thanks!" when someone holds the door for us when our hands are full, or when a stranger compliments us out of the blue.

Perhaps because of the transactional, economic nature of work, we have an aversion to expressing gratitude in the office. After all, you don't deliver a report to your boss out of the goodness of your heart, but because you are being paid to do it. We may have all developed a sense that it is unprofessional to say "thank you" or be compassionate in the workplace. And, expressing gratitude means being open and vulnerable; in a competitive workplace that might seem downright dangerous.

Yet, research has found that:

  • 93% of people agree that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed.
  • 88% of people say that expressing gratitude to colleagues makes them feel happier and more fulfilled.
  • Receiving a "thank you" from a supervisor boosted productivity by more than 50%!

However:

  • Only 10% of people say "thank you" to colleagues on any given day.
  • 60% of people report that they never or very rarely express gratitude at work.
  • The number one reason that people leave their jobs is because they don't feel appreciated.

We don't just work for money. We also work for respect, for a sense of accomplishment, for a feeling of purpose.

Studies of gratitude at work so far link it to more positive emotions, less stress and fewer health complaints, a greater sense that we can achieve our goals, fewer sick days, and higher satisfaction with our jobs and our coworkers. And ultimately, greater employee retention and productivity.

There are companies who are working towards creating a more grateful, appreciative workplace, like Campbell's Soup's former CEO writing 30,000 thank you notes to his employees. Or Southwest Airlines, named by Forbes as America's #35 Best Employer of 2017. One way they appreciate employees is by paying attention to special events in their personal lives-from kids' graduations to marriages to family illnesses-and recognizing those with small gestures like flowers and cards.

"Gratitude is going to make your business more profitable, you're going to be more effective, your employees will be more engaged; but if that's the only reason you're doing it, your employees are going to think you're using them. You have to genuinely want the best for your people."
~ Steve Foran, Founder, Gratitude at Work

Objections to Gratitude in the Workplace

So, if the benefits of expressing gratitude at work are so clear, and it can be relatively cheap to implement, why don't more companies jump on it?

There are a few common objections to gratitude in the workplace.

Gratitude is "Fluffy"

"Gratitude is one of those new age-y, fluffy emotional terms that has no place in the workplace." Well, yes. And no.

It is a less-tangible, emotionally-based concept, but when you approach it in a way that fits with your culture it can be a great business tool. Perhaps the Southwest Airlines tactic of sending flowers to your employees for life milestones isn't the right choice for your company. Maybe taking a group of employees out for a nice meal is a better fit, or writing short, private thank you notes to individuals. Or simply taking a moment to thank a coworker for their attention to detail or letting them know how much you appreciate that they always get their deliverables in before the deadline. At it's core gratitude is simply about making sure your people feel valued and respected.

It Shows Weakness or Undermines Authority

In a hierarchical environment, where people are competing for promotions or status, they may feel that thanking others is an admission of weakness, because they didn't achieve everything themselves. Managers can worry that it may be percieved as favoritism, or that it will make employees feel entitled or complacent.

The reality is that leaders who express gratitude inspire more trust in their employees, who see them as having more integrity. Research also suggests that gratitude actually motivates and energizes people, rather than making them complacent.

It Doesn't Work if it's Forced

Well, again, yes and no. There is an element to this of "fake it 'til you make it". People may resist being told they need to be grateful, but what is seen in the research is that, even if it starts out as a directive, people still end up seeing benefits from it. The things that go into practicing gratitude are actually enjoyable, so people tend to end up liking it.

Starting small and getting people used to the culture shift can help, along with giving them the opportunity to express gratitude when and how they want to.

It Seems Fake

It is true that gratitude works best when it is sincere. Your employees will recognize empty platitudes as just that. But encouraging employees to start small, by taking the time to say "thanks" when there is something to be thankful for will organically boost acts of gratitude. And even something as simple as making sure that employee evaluations discuss strengths and successes, as well as weaknesses and areas to improve, can move the culture towards appreciation and gratitude in a real, authentic way.

How Do I Start?

Research has made it very clear that money, beyond a living wage, is not the primary motivator for most people. Respect, a sense of purpose, and feelings of accomplishment are at least as important, if not more so. Gratitude is one way to support those non-monetary needs. Plus, it has a spillover effect of increasing trust!

Building a culture of gratitude does require some effort, and attention, but the science says it's worth it!

Leaders, Start With You

Expressing gratitude makes us vulnerable, so for some people it also means feeling unsafe. When the boss says "thank you" first, it helps people feel more secure. Of course, your expressions of gratitude need to be clear and genuine, and you'll need to be consistent. If your workplace has been lacking in gratitude, it may take a while for employees to open up, but persist and it will happen.

Since you're the boss, starting with you allows your company to create procedures and standards, like building gratitude into performance reviews, staff meetings, goal-setting meetings, even staff meetings.

Remember to Thank the People Who Don't Get Thanked

Every business has high-profile employees and/or positions. They also have the people behind the scenes plugging away at the less glamorous work to keep the business running. Often the janitor, the receptionist, the administrative assistant or the office manager, the guy who cuts the checks or churns out copy, or the warehouse distribution team get ignored.

Thanking these groups of employees sets a tone for the company, "Everyone here is valued." If appreciation is done publicly it also makes their contributions more visible and improves morale and trust.

Offer Different Ways to Express Gratitude

I like to say that instead of applying the Golden Rule, which says "Do unto others as you would have done unto you," use the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they prefer." Some people are reserved or shy and don't want to be thanked publicly.

Try creating a company version of a gratitude journal. Some companies have created websites where contributions are highlighted, but you don't have to have a website. You can use a bulletin board, rename it the Gratitude Wall, and let everyone post "thank yous" there, even anonymously.

Keep in mind that you want to target people, rather than things, with your gratitude. For example, nearly all of us appreciate coffee! But remember to thank the person who made the coffee or did the Starbucks run, rather than just being generally grateful for coffee.

Another thing that works in some offices is to give non-monetary, non-thing gifts. Give the gift of a day off, or take on a task that you know someone dislikes, or offer to finish a coworker's report when they are overwhelmed.

Create Giving or Volunteering Opportunities

People also feel grateful when they have opportunities to help others. Many organizations now give employees the time to volunteer outside the company for charitable causes, or schedule a volunteering "field trip" together, and support employees' efforts to volunteer and give back to the community.

Start Small, Start Anywhere, but Start

Probably the most important element of creating your culture of gratitude is to make sure your efforts are genuine. That may mean starting small, with gestures from the leadership team.

A simple comment, based on a genuine observation, like, "Thank you for always taking such clear, concise notes at our meetings." can go a long way to starting the culture change. Offer a thoughtful comment like that to each employee you work with, or who supports your work, and you'll be well on your way to a more grateful, and more productive, workplace.

Challenge Yourself
  • What is your experience, good or bad, with gratitude in your workplace?
  • As a leader, owner, or founder, have you focused on appreciation and gratitude as part of your culture? What are the results?
  • What other ideas would you suggest to help cultivate gratitude at work?
  • Which of these ideas have you tried in your workplace? What happened?

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