Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Rewarding achievement in the workplace is one thing, but how about expressing gratitude and appreciation for your co-workers' and employees' intrinsic worth as individuals? Find out how instilling a culture of gratitude in the workplace is revolutionizing organizations of every size and sector.
Let's face it, there's nothing worse than finding yourself in a toxic workplace with a general sense of stress, bitterness towards hierarchy, and negative feelings.
Not just because it's no fun - evidence suggests it also translates to high staff turnover, lower engagement or even pessimism towards achieving goals, lower productivity, and more sick days.
But framing this in terms of productivity is often where management gets it wrong. Even when recognition and reward are built into company culture, as is the case in many organizations in the form of 'employee of the month', for example, relationships between employer and employees will never go beyond the transactional.
The truth is, money and reward for our achievements is only one aspect of why we show up to work. We also need deeper connections in the form of community and a shared purpose with our colleagues. To express gratitude and appreciation is to satisfy those other, non-contractual needs we carry in our work lives. Any organization that acknowledges the positive impact of showing appreciation for the whole self, and infusing gratitude in the workplace, will invariably get the best out of its employees.
But first, let's take a look at what gratitude means, what workplace gratitude looks like, and the benefits for all involved.
Just what is gratitude, anyway?
Robert Emmons, a leading expert on the science of gratitude, believes that there are two parts to gratitude, which he describes in his essay entitled “Why Gratitude Is Good.”
“First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.” This first part, the acknowledgment of goodness, can be considered synonymous with appreciation.
But gratitude goes a step further. “We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people - or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset - gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
This recognition of external gifts is the antidote to complacency and entitlement, and the gateway to other beneficial social skills such as compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
OK, great. So what about workplace gratitude?
The benefits of gratitude as a workplace culture
Research suggests that grateful employees are healthier, more engaged, more productive, and will ultimately make your business more profitable. But that sounds a bit cynical, right?
I mean, if a company is seeking to foster gratitude purely to make more money, then from the employees' point of view, it's hardly a sincere approach that will result in a seismic shift from the norm in the American workplace, where co-workers "actively suppress gratitude on the job, even to the point of robbing themselves of happiness."
Instead, it's about recognizing that money can't buy happiness, and as much as we try to behave otherwise, it's not only our professional self that shows up to work; it's all of us, therefore all aspects of a person - and their intrinsic worth - deserve some nourishment.
Research shows this is how to build the strongest foundations for a better overall environment at work. One where well-being takes center stage, optimism towards achieving shared goals is greater, job satisfaction and workplace positivity is at an all-time high, and your co-worker is more likely to display "organizational citizenship" - those good deeds like welcoming new employees, covering for a team member or even making a round of coffee. All of which contribute to great teamwork and a great vibe. So yes, gratitude delivers, but it's about much more than that.
Read on to find out how to instill gratitude practices at work and hardwire workplace gratitude.
Four keys to cultivating more gratitude in your organization
As with most skills or techniques, gratitude requires practice to maintain. Sure, a one-off gratitude retreat or workshop might have a profound effect on teams, and their natural reaction might be to express appreciation and start practicing more gratitude. But that's just the start.
It takes time and effort at every level of the organization to deliberately infuse gratitude and make gratitude practice a permanent component of company culture. Let's take a look at some of the different gratitude practices used to create stronger teams.
1. Build gratitude into company culture
If you can create regular opportunities to express gratitude and public praise, all the better. In fact, all your internal communications and meetings should be seen as gratitude-giving opportunities. You can take a more proactive stance by systematically writing your kind words into the agenda.
Excellent opportunities to express gratitude include:
Weekly or monthly meetings
Your organization's internal forum or app
Be wary however to keep this kind of "process gratitude" sincere. It must come from a place of open and honest communication. While colleagues have felt appreciated when sincere words of gratitude have been shared, it's equally evident that insincere or "mandatory" expressions of gratitude can have the opposite effect on the overall workplace feel.
2. Acknowledge the whole person
Whereas reward schemes have been around forever as a way to incentivize performance and recognize achievement, the spillover effect of gratitude is deeper and broader, stoking the non-monetary motivations that bring teams together to work - i.e. helping others and serving a common purpose.
An employee who receives a thank you card for being a great person to have around the office will feel appreciated for their intrinsic worth; which is a totally different ball game from getting a bonus for closing a sale, for example. It's a chance to publicly praise those who often miss out on praise because their impact is less measurable.
Not that you need a prompt, but here are some aspects of a person that might deserve a little acknowledgment:
Citizen acts around the office: covering for a colleague, cleaning up a spill, watering the plants, organizing a social event or game for coworkers
Personal behavior or traits: always showing up with a smile, consoling others, being pleasant to communicate with on a project
Life events: birthdays, weddings, bereavements, births
And remember, gratitude is very much a two-way street: 81% of people would reportedly work harder for a grateful boss. When you recognize the good in your team, it's almost inevitable they'll look at you in the same way.
3. Learn the many languages of gratitude
Everyone is different, with their own unique background and set of values. As such, each person receives and perceives acts of appreciation in a different way. It's wrong to assume, for example, that everyone enjoys being singled out for public praise. We can't expect people to necessarily respond in the same way as ourselves - and this diversity is to be celebrated as an opportunity too.
Latest articles suggest schemes such as:
Surprise care packages
There are plenty of ways to express appreciation for co-workers, and your organization can get creative in trying out different schemes to make its people happy.
4. Express gratitude from the top
It's the workplace leaders who set the tone and tempo for the entire organization. Let management at work greatly influence this by expressing gratitude in how they execute their own tasks and manage their own teams. To hear it from a co-worker is one thing, but when gratitude comes from the boss, it's "official". And employees are more likely to feel grateful in return.
In addition, grateful managers are more likely to hire grateful people, leading to a positive cycle embedding a culture of gratitude for the long term.
Workplace leaders can also demonstrate that in a busy working environment where traditionally the hustlers make it to the top, taking time out to look out for one another and foster a sense of appreciation has its place alongside hard work and graft.