Have you ever thought about how often you give a genuine “thank you” to your team or acknowledge their contributions? Gratitude in the workplace is rarely top of mind for HR professionals because it sounds too simple (read: likely ineffective). Researchers have recently begun diving into this topic and they’ve found that an appreciative workplace tends to positively impact employee motivation, retention and engagement. Gratitude has even been called“the single most sustainable motivator.” Gratitude can have small impacts when used on its own, but when operationalized strategically in an organization’s culture, that’s where change can happen on a large scale.
Gratitude can be defined as“possessingreadiness to show appreciation and to return thanks.” It’s been shown to have marked effects on motivation, general well-being and resilience. So, because work is where we spend the vast majority of our time during the week, it makes sense that appreciation is something worth paying attention to.
However, studies have shown this isn’t happening. In fact, work is the place wherepeople are least likely to express gratitude. As the world of work evolves, what if one of the best ways to keep employees engaged and motivated was not a sweeping initiative but a genuine thank you?
Let’s look at a few studies that demonstrate why gratitude is important in the workplace and then go over a few strategies for implementing a culture of gratitude.
Proof that gratitude makes a difference
It makes people feel valued: In a Wharton study, participants were asked to edit an individual’s cover letter. A researcher pretended to be the cover letter’s owner and either thanked the participant for their editing help, or didn’t. When asked to edit a second letter, participants who had been thanked spent a significantly longer time editing it. They also felt more socially valued than the control group. Above anything else and across different study scenarios, feeling valued socially was the biggest motivator.
It can lead to more productive work: Another study by the same researchers showed that call center employees who received a message from their director saying she was “grateful” for their hard work and “sincerely appreciated” their contributions made 50% more calls the next week than those who didn't receive the message.
As the studies above show, gratitude can increase employee motivation, productivity and retention. It’s a practical engagement strategy because it comes at no cost to recognize another’s work. And, while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to gratitude, there’s a tangibility to appreciation at work that can resonate with managers and employees alike. Unlike broad concepts like change management, where the actual process is subjective and difficult to identify, gratitude is easily actionable company-wide.
Implementing gratitude can be especially beneficial given the increase of remote and global teams. Acknowledgement is even more important when colleagues are not interacting face-to-face. The easy, yet essential, recognition of others is a key touchpoint for remote employees’ loyalty and connection to an organization.
Making gratitude happen
When thinking about implementing a strategy for gratitude at your organization, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Start with leadership: Gratitude is most successful when employees take the initiative with a bottom-up approach. However, realistically, the movement often starts with leadership. Because gratitude is an intuitive concept, it can be taken for granted. Leaders have to consciously take on gratitude as an initiative to implement and decide what that means for the company. A recent study on sincere gratitude advises, “managers need to be specific, personalize the message, deliver it in a timely fashion, and make the thanks equal to the deed.”
2. Make it part of the culture: One challenge is making gratitude part of the very fabric of the organization. It must be more than lip service; employees will be able to sense the difference. Organizational communications should have gratitude instilled in them, such as a place on the company intranet or newsletter where employees can be acknowledged for outstanding work. For example, the performance management platform we use at PeopleDoc encourages employees to award peers with a “gold star” for things like help with a project or running a training. These awards are visible to the company. Meetings could also include a few moments where employees are encouraged to acknowledge those who have helped them or deserve to be recognized for something work-related.
3. Integrate into performance management: Some companies use gratitude as a performance metric because it ties into their core values. For example, a manager's role entails appreciating and acknowledging their employee’s work. Because gratitude is a difficult metric to keep objective, this is more successful when established up front. Before you institute it as an evaluation tool, think about how you would define gratitude in your workplace and how it could be related to performance in your company culture.
In summary, gratitude seems to sell itself as an effective way to increase job satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Even though it’s a simple concept, there are still many elements to consider when implementing a gratitude initiative. However, gratitude is worth practicing in the workplace even without a full-fledged implementation plan. A well-placed thank-you can make a big difference, and the more organizations that realize and support that, the better.
Breanna Paynter is a soon-to-be graduate of the NYU MA program of Industrial/Organizational Psychology and currently works in the PeopleHub at PeopleDoc. She has a background in Psychology and started her career at a non-profit in Australia. Since then, she’s worked in HR and consulting throughout grad school, helping companies of various sizes and missions grapple with employee experience and change. She’s passionate about bettering the world of work and guiding purposeful organizations in developing their talent and culture.