It’s amazing what a little gratitude can do.
Around Thanksgiving, many of us consider what we’re thankful for, and sometimes this involves expressing our gratitude to others. But how often do we do it in the workplace?
One of my favorite scenes in the show Mad Men is when Peggy Olson is frustrated that she hasn’t been recognized for an idea she contributed at work. Her boss, Don Draper, says, “It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.” Olson is visibly upset, and she says: “You never say thank you!” to which Draper bellows, “That’s what the money is for!” Like many scenes in Mad Men, it’s a great example of what not to do if you’re trying to be a decent human.
But it shines a light on what we thank people for at work, and how genuinely we feel and express thanks. Is the only time we express gratitude a perfunctory “thank you for giving me this assignment” or “thank you for completing this project”? How often do we show true appreciation for others we work with?
Expressing gratitude and appreciation can go a long way toward making people feel valued. And it can strengthen your business.
Psychologist Robert Emmons explains that gratitude drives people to contribute more and be more helpful at work. Also, he writes: “Grateful people are more likely to be creative at work. Gratitude promotes innovative thinking, flexibility, openness, curiosity, and love of learning.”
Expressing gratitude to employees boosts performance, according to Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton in their book Leading With Gratitude. It makes employees more engaged, reduces turnover, and strengthens team bonds, they say.
The pandemic has imposed new challenges on many people. It has also changed what many people want and need from their work. People may be less willing to put up with feeling unappreciated or unsupported. So it may be especially important to build a work culture where everyone feels appreciated, supported, and fully included.
I talked with Mark Babbitt and Chris Edmonds, coauthors of Good Comes First, about how gratitude fits into a positive work culture. Expressing gratitude shows respect, they say.
“If we treat people with respect and validate their contributions to us achieving our ultimate mission, besides just making money, then then that’s the ultimate form of gratitude. It’s: I’m going to take a moment to actually say thank you for your ideas, your thoughts, your work, and your overall contributions,” says Babbitt, who is also president of WorqIQ.
“I consider a positive work culture the biggest challenge we have in this near-post-COVID period of time,” Babbitt says. “We only have to look at how many people are leaving their jobs voluntarily to say that people have decided that enough is enough.”
People want and need more, especially younger generations whose values differ from their older counterparts. They expect a better work-life balance, and they want to work for organizations whose values align with their own. This is part of what drives some people to sustainable businesses. They also want to feel valued.
“Gratitude is like an adrenaline shot to the heart. It keeps work relationships alive,” Babbitt says.
However, expressions of gratitude are not one size fits all. Leaders may feel gratitude but not fully express it, or they might express it inappropriately, says Edmonds, who is also founder and CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group. For example, an introvert might be embarrassed by a public expression of thanks. “The appropriateness of the expression has to be something that leaders are very in tune to,” he says, and that might require asking people what they’re comfortable with.
The act of expressing gratitude might also be uncomfortable. “The leadership circle has mostly been made up of old white guys for a very, very long time. Old white guys were never trained how to show gratitude. It wasn’t important. It wasn’t a desirable attribute,” Babbitt explains. But even if you’re uncomfortable showing the vulnerability required to say thank you, it’s better to do it, even if you stumble over the right words, he says.
The person you thank might decide to pass it on. Have you ever stopped at a booth on a toll road, ready to pay your toll, and then been told that the person who drove through before you paid yours? Or had the same thing happen while standing in line at the coffee shop? Even though it’s a random act and the person before you doesn’t know you, it’s something that you may feel compelled to pass along. The same goes for expressing gratitude in the workplace, some research suggests.
A 2010 study found that people who received expressions of gratitude increased their prosocial behavior—behavior that benefits others. In this study, participants who received brief written expressions of gratitude were motivated to help the person who expressed gratitude as well as someone else.
An organization’s leaders should be the ones to get the ball rolling and start expressing gratitude. Until they do, “front-line team leaders aren’t going to do it, peers won’t do it—employees won’t do it to each other,” Edmonds says.
Babbitt recalled a CEO client who was considered aloof and unapproachable, and who was working on changing his approach. One night, when he noticed that a bunch of employees were still at the office working late, he stopped in and asked what was keeping them there and what resources they needed to help. They were shocked. “Just showing that little bit of respect changed the culture overnight,” Babbitt says.
People often talk about positive company culture as something that’s nice to have, but it’s not a priority, Babbitt says. However, “We have seen almost an epiphany over the last three, four, or five months, where leaders who have done things the way they’ve always done them are now going, ‘Wow, that’s really not good enough anymore,’” he says.
So how can you get started? “It starts with one conversation. You sit everybody down, and you ask: When it comes to working here, what works for you? What inspires you? And what doesn’t work—what’s not working well at all for you?” Babbitt says. Listen and then act on what you hear.
Building a more positive culture might require asking employees for their suggestions and feedback more often. It might also require making sure people feel meaningfully included and supported as their whole selves—which is one aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A white paper from the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Driving Leadership Development With Positivity, offers some tips. They include giving frequent feedback about the positive contribution that your colleagues have on others, and cultivating positive relationships, “characterized by mutual giving and receiving, caring, and safety in challenging times.”
You might seek ways to better support employees. In many cases, the pandemic has changed people’s needs. Some organizations have expanded the access that employees have to mental health resources. The topic of mental health is no longer as taboo, so to promote mental and emotional health, you can check in on how employees are doing, and if you notice they’re not using their vacation days, consider encouraging them to do so. Gone are the days when it was unprofessional to talk about your personal life at work. During the pandemic, many people haven’t had the option of keeping their work and personal lives separate.
Even small things might help. You can ask employees in a survey what work-sponsored events they enjoy or would enjoy. Whether it’s creating group volunteer opportunities, signing up to run/walk a 5k as a team, or starting a book club, these events can offer opportunities for people to connect. To build a culture of gratitude, some employers have a “gratitude wall” where people can post what they’re grateful for and publicly express thanks to each other.
To build a more positive culture, “you have to increase your connection to people at whatever level of comfort they’re good with,” Edmonds says, such as by asking about someone’s family or how they’re doing. “There’s a real art to being able to connect with people on an authentic basis, on a respectful basis. And it’s going to become much, much, much more important in the next five years.”
Expressing your own gratitude can be an important first step in building a more positive culture.