• Published January 17, 2024
  • 9 Minute Read

How to Show More Gratitude at Work: Giving Thanks Makes You a Better Leader

For many people, “thanks-giving” is a tradition that happens around the dinner table once a year. But research suggests that leaders should express gratitude in the workplace year-round — here’s how and why gratitude in leadership matters.
Published January 17, 2024
people discussing gratitude at work; explaining how showing gratitude in the workplace is helpful and why gratitude in leadership matters

The Science of Gratitude in the Workplace & Beyond

Why Is Gratitude in Leadership Important?

Gratitude can be defined as a positive emotion felt after receiving something valuable. And science has shown that people who are grateful feel happier. The benefits of gratitude include:

  • An improved sense of wellbeing.
  • Higher self-esteem.
  • Less depression and anxiety.
  • Better sleep.

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.

Showing Gratitude at Work Helps Individuals & Organizations Thrive

Research confirms that organizations need leaders who can show authentic empathy in the workplace, communicate effectively, and create psychological safety at work. Skipping gratitude displays low levels of trust and makes it difficult for leaders to create shared vision, motivate employees to collaborate together successfully, and keep talented, engaged employees.

But those who are adept at showing kindness in the workplace can improve organizational culture. Organizations can boost employee engagement, motivation, productivity, and retention — as well as their satisfaction and even their health and employee wellbeing — when leaders express more gratitude at work.

Showing gratitude in the workplace is particularly important during times of change, precisely because change can’t be done alone. Leaders must display sensitivity to their people’s needs, and emotional intelligence is closely linked to leadership effectiveness.

Because gratitude is a complex social emotion, it builds belonging at work and 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 of the gratitude in leadership shown by their supervisor, which gave them an increased sense of social worth — feeling valued by others.

Ready to get started? Take our 7-day gratitude challenge to start an intentional practice of more thanks-giving at work and at home.

The Gratitude Gap in the Workplace

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

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.”

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

Yet a Glassdoor survey found that 80% of employees say they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss. And at a study conducted at a fundraising center, calls were boosted by 50% after a director thanked employees for their work. Research has even found that employees who intentionally practiced gratitude took fewer sick days.

These statistics suggest that gratitude in leadership is important, and organizations who encourage expressions of gratitude in the workplace are likely to reap the benefits of a more engaged, productive, and healthy workforce.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Practicing Gratitude: Why Giving Thanks Leads to Resilience, and learn the science behind gratitude and the impact it has on social, physical, mental, and emotional outcomes.

How to Show More Gratitude at Work (and at Home)

3 Tips for Leaders to Try on Their Own

Ready to reap the many benefits of gratitude? Luckily, you don’t need any fancy tools or advanced degrees. Here are some simple things that leaders can do that have been scientifically proven to boost gratitude, 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 even a text, if you prefer. Just get a simple message out to someone to share that you’re grateful to have them in your life, let them know that you appreciate them, and that 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; studies prove 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 out for reflection.

Studies have also found that simply reflecting on the many things — large and small — for which you’re grateful can boost levels of gratitude at work and at home. These might include supportive colleagues, mentors, or other relationships and the types of support you have available; sacrifices or contributions that others have made for you; advantages or opportunities you’ve received; or even just gratitude for the opportunity to have your job, do the work you do, or people you value in general. Going on a short “gratitude walk” is a great way to take time out for this reflection.

Fostering Gratitude in the Workplace

3 Ways to Leaders Can Encourage More Gratitude at Work

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? Try writing 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 space for gratitude.

Create a designated physical and/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 the reality of today’s hybrid workplaces and remote teams, it might be even better to leverage a shared online platform that everyone can access, like a company intranet or internal newsletter. Be creative!

Make space for gratitude in terms of time, too. You can model cultivating gratitude at work by beginning team meetings by sharing a short statement of appreciation (remember the difference this made in the fundraising center study!). Or, try inviting everyone to share one thing they’re grateful for — it makes a great icebreaker. Or, consider setting aside a specially allotted time in a regularly recurring department- or organization-wide meeting for acknowledgements. A public display of gratitude by leadership is a great way to introduce gratitude into the workplace culture and keep employees feeling appreciated and motivated.

3. When things go wrong, count your blessings.

It’s easy to feel 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. Consider: What did you learn from the experience? What opportunity for growth did it offer you? Even hardships offer lessons learned. Model for your team the habit of reflecting on what went wrong and extracting lessons from “heat experiences,” because being able to be truly grateful even during times of challenge and change is a great way to build resilience and stop spirals of rumination and stress.

Make Gratitude in Leadership a Priority

4 Ways to Get Great at Giving Thanks

Encouraging more gratitude at work (like any other initiative) is prone to fail if you just go through the motions. Here are 4 ways leaders show more compassion and help encourage and express more authentic gratitude in the workplace, modeling more impactful thanks-giving, year-round.

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

1. Be grateful for people, not performance.

Sometimes, gratitude workplace 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 a 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 primary acknowledgement of an employee who went the extra mile for months to meet an important company-wide project 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 yesterday!” doesn’t have the same impact as “Thank you for getting to the meeting 5 minutes early to set up the screen-share; I know that our meetings wouldn’t go as smoothly if we didn’t have you working behind the scenes.” We recommend using our SBI feedback model to give the most effective feedback, starting by citing the specific situation or context.

4. Don’t fake it.

Authentic leadership and showing vulnerability are key parts of gratitude in leadership. 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 expressing an insincere gratitude at work is probably worse than showing none at all.

A Closing Word on Gratitude at Work

Research shows that whether you’re an absolute novice or a guru on gratitude at work, everyone can reap the positive benefits of giving and receiving more heartfelt thanks. In fact, our (Better) Leadership Project is highlighting gratitude among the many ways that (better) leaders care for themselves and others, leading to organizations that are more innovative, successful, and (better) prepared for the future. So, get out there and start expressing and encouraging more gratitude in leadership!

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Start showing more gratitude in the workplace and beyond: Take our 7-day gratitude challenge to start implementing an intentional gratitude practice of more thanks-giving at work and at home.

Download the Gratitude in Leadership Challenge Now

Start showing more gratitude in the workplace and at home with our special, week-long challenge.

  • Published January 17, 2024
  • 9 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Cathleen Clerkin
Cathleen Clerkin, PhD
Former Strategic Research Manager

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

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