Gratitude at Work: How Giving Thanks Will Make You a Better Leader

Giving Thanks Will Make You a Better Leader - Gratitude in the Workplace

How to Encourage Gratitude in the Workplace

For many people, “thanks-giving” is a tradition that happens around the dinner table once a year. But research suggests that leaders should encourage gratitude in the workplace year-round.

The Science of Gratitude at Work & Beyond

Gratitude can be defined as a positive emotion felt after receiving something valuable. And science has shown that people who are grateful feel happier. They have an improved sense of well-being, higher self-esteem, and experience less depression and anxiety. They also sleep better. And one study even found that differences in levels of gratitude are responsible for about 20% of individual differences in overall life satisfaction.

According to researchers, gratitude is powerful because it’s a complex social emotion. In other words, it’s an emotion that makes us think about others. We can’t be grateful that someone went out of their way to help us unless we stop and think about the situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s little wonder that gratitude has also been linked to oxytocin — the hormone associated with social bonding.

The Gratitude Gap in the Workplace

Despite its compelling benefits, expressing gratitude doesn’t always happen at work.

One study found that while about half of people regularly say thank you to their family members, only about 15% of people regularly say thank you at work. The same study found that 35% of people say that their managers have never thanked them. This muted expression of gratitude in the workplace compared to other contexts can be thought of as the “gratitude gap.”

Yet a Glassdoor survey found that 80% of employees say they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss.

These statistics suggest that leaders who encourage gratitude in the workplace are likely to reap the benefits of a more engaged and productive workforce — as employees who practice gratitude even take fewer sick days. And at a study conducted at a fundraising center, calls were boosted by 50% after a director thanked employees for their work.

So why is there a gratitude gap in the workplace? Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant believes it’s because people don’t like to admit they need help at work, and thanking someone means admitting you couldn’t do it all on your own.

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Gratitude Helps Organizations Thrive in the Face of Change

In the context of the workplace, gratitude is particularly important during times of change, precisely because change can’t be done alone.

This is true now more than ever — given the challenges of coping with pandemic stress and the constant change workers have been facing in recent months. With employees leaving their jobs in droves, organizations need executives who can show authentic empathy, build psychological safety at work, and be effective change leaders. Lack of communication and low levels of trust makes it hard to keep talented people, create a shared vision, and collaborate together successfully.

Because gratitude is a complex social emotion, it draws people together in pursuit of a greater vision. For instance, in the fundraising center study, self-reported data showed that callers didn’t make more calls because they felt more confident or more effective. Instead, they made more calls because they felt an increased sense of social worthfeeling valued by others.

Ways Leaders Can Be More Grateful

Ready to reap the many benefits of gratitude? Luckily, you don’t need any fancy tools or advanced degrees. Here are 3 simple exercises that have been scientifically proven to boost your gratitude levels, both at work and beyond.

1. Send a note expressing your gratitude.

Research shows that writing a letter thanking someone for the positive impact they’ve had in your life is a great way to boost your gratitude. Or, send an email or text, if you prefer. Just send a simple message to someone you’re grateful to have in your life and let them know that you appreciate them and you’re thinking of them.

2. Keep a gratitude journal – or even just a list.

Gratitude journals are popular these days, and for good reason. Keeping a journal of people and things for which you’re grateful can increase your feelings of gratitude. If you’re not the journaling type, don’t worry; making a short list works, too. Some research suggests that a short list once a week might actually be more effective than doing it daily. Just jot down 3 things you’re grateful for on a Post-It note. Stick it somewhere you’ll see it often, and refresh it weekly. (Some people even collect their lists in a “gratitude jar.”)

3. Take time for reflection.

Research has also found that simply reflecting on the many aspects of your job — large and small — for which you’re grateful can boost gratitude levels. These might include supportive work relationships, sacrifices or contributions that others have made for you, advantages or opportunities, types of support you have available, or gratitude for the opportunity to have your job in general. Going on a short “gratitude walk” is a great way to take time out for this reflection. If you’re feeling inclined, repeat the exercise and think about the many aspects of your life for which you’re grateful, too (like your family, friends, hobbies, etc.).

How to Increase Gratitude in the Workplace

Showing kindness can improve your organization’s performance and culture. You’ll boost employee engagement, motivation, productivity, and retention — as well as satisfaction and health — by increasing gratitude at work. Here are 4 ways leaders can help encourage gratitude in the workplace and foster more thanks-giving, year-round:

1. Offer thank-you cards.

During his tenure at Campbell Soup, then-CEO Doug Conant wrote 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes to his employees. This practice, along with others, has been credited with how he created a culture of gratitude and turned around a struggling company. Do 30,000 letters seem daunting? Take a page out of Mark Zuckerberg’s playbook and aim for just one a day. To encourage others to do the same, emulate Starbucks and offer unlimited company thank-you cards for employees to use.

2. Make a gratitude space.

Create a designated physical or virtual space for employees to share shout-outs, kudos, and words of thanks. This can be a literal wall or whiteboard in a common area, or given today’s new hybrid workplace, even better might be a shared online platform that everyone can access or a specially allotted time set aside during a regularly recurring meeting. Be creative! A public display of gratitude is a great way to introduce gratitude into the workplace culture and keep employees feeling appreciated and motivated.

3. Start meetings with gratitude.

A simple way to cultivate gratitude at work is to begin meetings by sharing a short statement of appreciation (remember the difference this made in the fundraising center study!). Or, if you want to take this approach to the next level, try having everyone in the meeting share one thing they’re grateful for — it makes a great icebreaker.

4. When things go wrong, count your blessings.

It’s easy to be grateful when things are going well. But gratitude can have an even bigger impact if you’re going through a rough patch. So, when you encounter challenges, see if you can find the silver lining. What did you learn from the experience? What opportunity did it offer you? Even hardships offer lessons learned. Share these insights with your team. Being able to be truly grateful during times of challenge and change is a great way to stop spirals of rumination and stress.

Get Great at Gratitude in the Workplace

Encouraging more gratitude at work (like any other initiative) is prone to fail if you just go through the motions. Here are 4 tips for leaders to ensure you’re expressing your gratitude in a more authentic and impactful way.

Infographic: 4 Ways to Get Great at Gratitude in the Workplace

1. Be grateful for people, not performance.

Sometimes, gratitude initiatives can feel like old recognition programs warmed over. To avoid this feeling, focus on social worth and think about how people have made a difference. Give thanks for people’s willingness, enthusiasm, commitment, or efforts — not just their impact on the bottom line.

2. Customize your thanks-giving.

Practicing gratitude in the workplace requires thinking about how specific people like to be thanked and tailoring your show of gratitude accordingly. A public thanks of a very shy person at the global quarterly meeting might come across to them more like punishment than recognition. And a quick “Thanks, great work!” said in passing at a team meeting might be too general if intended to be your acknowledgement of an employee who went the extra mile for months to meet an important deadline. Consider what would mean the most to the recipient and show thoughtfulness in your approach.

3. Be specific in your gratitude.

Saying “Thanks for being so awesome” doesn’t have the same impact as “Thank you for always getting to meetings 5 minutes early to set up the projector; I know that our meetings wouldn’t go as well if we didn’t have you.” To give the most effective positive (or negative) feedback, we recommend using our SBI feedback model and starting with the specific situation.

4. Don’t fake it.

Authentic leadership and showing vulnerability are key parts of gratitude. If you can’t think of anything you’re truly grateful for, don’t try to fake it. Most people can tell when an expression of thanks isn’t heartfelt, and fake gratitude is probably worse than none at all.

Research shows that whether you’re an absolute novice or gratitude guru, everyone can reap the positive benefits of giving and receiving thanks. So, get out there and start encouraging more gratitude in the workplace!

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your team develop habits — including practicing gratitude in the workplace — to increase employee engagement, retention, productivity, and performance. Partner with us to craft a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authentic Leadership, Communication, Emotional Intelligence & Empathy, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

November 12, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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