Gratitude: The Power of Appreciation in the Workplace

On November 8, having waited in line once to vote in the presidential election, Jodi Atkinson found herself standing in another line that snaked hundreds-long through Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Atkinson and her daughter waited patiently in the cold drizzle to paste their “I Voted” stickers on the grave of Susan B. Anthony, suffragette and champion of women’s rights.

gratitude“Susan B. Anthony is the reason my daughter and I are allowed to vote today. I feel tremendous gratitude for her courage and commitment.”

Susan B. Anthony, and others like her buried in graveyards nearby, worked tirelessly for emancipation and women’s rights. After her arrest for trying to vote in 1872, Anthony continued the struggle until her death in 1906, fourteen years before the 19th amendment was ratified, ensuring a woman’s right to vote.

Anthony will never know the appreciation of those who journey to her grave every election day to pay homage to her, but those who stand in line to express their gratitude will walk away more likely to feel happier, exercise more, sleep better, be sick less often and exhibit greater prosocial behaviors towards others.

All from saying thank you.

Gratitude is not only for the person who is thanked.

There has long been evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that people appreciate being thanked. The recipients of verbal and physical grateful gestures feel valued, connected, and are more likely to repeat the action for both the same person and strangers. Emotionally, the process of being thanked goes much farther than having the good manners to send Aunt Eda a thank you note for the Christmas scarf; heartfelt gratitude invokes feelings of reassurance, appreciation and social value.

Increasing bodies of research also demonstrate, however, that gratitude strongly benefits the person who is thankful. Individuals who intentionally express their thanks for the people and events in their lives are happier, more optimistic, and maintain stronger relationships.  They also exercised more, slept better, and visited their physician less frequently.  And the effect appears to be multiplicative: The more gratitude expressed, the better individuals feel, motivating a greater increase in actions and expressions of thanks.

Recognizing gratitude as an emotion, not just an action.gratitude

Modern positive psychology classifies gratitude as an emotion, not just the sometimes-empty and socially-mandated action of saying thank you. As an emotion, it serves a purpose to elevating our overall well being. Psychologists define gratitude as “more than feeling thankful for something, it is more like a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) which produces longer lasting positivity.” And, like other emotions, gratitude has causal links to physical health as well as emotional well-being.

Gratitude in the workplace.

Gratitude has enormous potential in the workplace to inspire employees, motivate managers, and build strong teams. A 2013 Harvard Business Review article reports that “research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors, are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.” The same article cites an American Psychological Association (APA) study that found that more than half of all employees intended to search for new jobs because they felt under appreciated and undervalued.

LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, looks at gratitude from the other side of the managerial coin. He believes gratitude is “the highest ROI management tool I know…that is available to everyone, costs essentially nothing, and is a proven driver of workplace productivity.”

Harnessing the power of grateful.

So with so much evidence pointing to the importance of gratitude, why don’t we use it as a viable and productive tool in our personal and professional relationships? Why does expressing gratitude, especially at work, often feel awkward, disingenuous and contrived?

We need to exercise that muscle of heartfelt appreciation that has been left to atrophy behind the priorities of meeting deadlines, satisfying market demands and driving towards company milestones. Managers and their employees need to gain fluency in the language of gratitude to truly harness the power of what Weiner hails “the highest ROI management tool I know.”  Here are some resources to help get started.

HBR Article:  Help others develop; Involve employees; Support camaraderie.

HBR Article: Start with yourself; Notice what others are doing right; Be appreciative.

Harvard Medical School Press:  Write a thank you note; Keep a journal; Count your blessings.

The Greater Good: Start at the top; Thank the people who never get thanked; Aim for quality not quantity.




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