Gratitude @ Work

Everybody likes to hear “thank you”, right? After all, it’s one of the first expressions that we teach our toddlers, and I personally spent hours hounding my preteens to write thank you notes. But, according to recent research, we all may need some help saying “thank you,” especially at work.

A 2013 survey of two thousand Americans by the John Templeton Foundation found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than any other place. It’s not that people don’t value gratitude in the workplace. Ninety-three percent agreed that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed. Most reported that hearing “thank you” at work made them more motivated. But less than 10 percent of workers surveyed reported saying “thank you” to a co-worker or subordinate at work on any given day. Why are we so bad at expressing thanks and gratitude in our workplaces?

Perhaps it is because we tend to view work as a completely transactional exchange. At the end of the day, the reward for a job well done is a paycheck, not an “atta-boy (or girl)”.  Interestingly, another study found that people in positions of power tended to believe others thanked them mainly to win favor, not out of authentic feeling – and as a result of this cynicism, supervisors themselves are less likely than others to express gratitude. And in the past year, many bosses have just been struggling to keep the doors open without having the time or energy to put into expressing individual thanks to team members.

Scientific research has found both psychological and physiological benefits to expressing and receiving thanks (increased motivation, higher satisfaction, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety). One study conducted by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that, after only two weeks, participants who kept a record of gratitude experiences on a daily basis experienced increased happiness, greater satisfaction with life, higher resilience to stress, and fewer headaches than non-participants.

One response that shows up in a number of surveys is that employees want to be thanked from the top for their contribution to the company’s success. Especially this year, when folks have faced so many stresses, on the job and at home, it just makes good business sense to show our gratitude to the people who show up everyday to keep our businesses running.

Here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Thank the people who never get thanked – the ones who are easily overlooked, or folks who “technically” don’t work for us  – contractors, janitorial or maintenance staff, delivery people.
  • Aim for quality, not quantity. You want to convey authenticity in your thanks. Sometimes, a short, handwritten note means more than a $20 gift card. (Although receiving both is even better!)
  • When you hire someone, or during annual reviews, ask the person, “How would you like to be thanked for a job well done?” And then remember to occasionally thank each individual in their preferred way.
  • Create opportunities for thanks. Create a space – virtual or physical for people to post their notes of gratitude to co-workers.
  • Make sure that expresssions or exercises of gratitude follow times of stress and crisis. As we weather the economic uncertainty or Covid-related stress, set aside time for people to “count their blessings” as a way of healing – both personally and corporately. Ask the questions:
    • What lessons did this experience teach us?
    • Were there any blessings, or small experiences of the “good”, that happened?
    • What ability did the experience draw out of us that surprised us?
    • Are there ways we have become a better workplace because of it?

(Thanks to the Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley, for their recent book, The Gratitude Project. Smith, et al, editors. 2020. New Harbinger Publications.)