Creating a Culture of Gratitude in the Workplace

We seem to get the “gratitude spirit” during the end of year holiday season. We hear the heart-felt stories about kindness and giving start to appear.  Tis’ the season, so to speak.   It’s a time when even the busiest and most cynical among us pause (even if only for a short time) and reflect.   But too often, the feelings of gratitude that the holiday spirit may generate are focused only on family and friends.  Gratitude, after all, is not an emotion most of us associate with the workplace.

But what if gratitude were commonplace in the workplace? What do you think the impact of a culture of gratitude would be on well-being, relationships, cooperation, stress, creativity, performance and productivity?

Gratitude is a powerful emotion.  A growing body of research shows  the significant physiological benefits to those experiencing gratitude.  Studies at the University of California (Davis) and the University of Miami showed that experiencing gratitude balanced hormonal levels and led to the release of DHEA, “the anti-aging hormone.”  Gratitude also boosts the immune system by increasing the LgA antibody.  These studies found that engaging in daily “gratitude exercises” can raise the level of positive feelings.

Since neural networks become reinforced and habituated from routinized experiences, activating emotions like gratitude and appreciation can become more like our “default” emotions.
The mounting evidence shows that “gratitude represents the quintessential positive personality trait, being an indicator of a worldview oriented towards noticing and appreciating the positive in life.”  Journal of Personality and Individual Difference

According to research at the Institute for Heart Math, “true feelings of gratitude, appreciation and other positive emotions can synchronize brain and heart rhythms, creating a body wide shift to a scientifically measurable state called coherence. In this optimal state, the body’s systems function more efficiently, generating a greater balance of emotions and increased mental clarity and brain function.”

There’s no question that cultivating more gratitude and appreciation has a positive effect on the person experiencing it – but what about its effect on others? And does infusing a workplace culture with gratitude result in more positive outcomes?

Gratitude is a Great Motivator of Behavior

 New studies show the impact of gratitude and reciprocity. In a study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, the effect of a job applicant’s gratitude was examined.   A fictional student named “Eric,” emailed 69 participants a request for help with his application.  Only half were thanked by Eric as a response to their help.  While only 32% of those with no thank-you helped Eric with his 2nd request for help, 66% of those who received thanks responded positively to his request.

In other studies, gratitude played a definite role in increasing positive responses within business settings. For example, one experiment found that customers of a jewelry store who were called and thanked showed an increase of 70% in future purchases.  And ever notice that boldly written “Thank You” on the check your server leaves at your table? There’s a reason that idea is catching on. Customers who are thanked leave bigger tips!

Creating Organizational Cultures of Gratitude

“Maybe I shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag, but the practice of gratitude is subversive. Gratitude is subversive because it changes relationships, especially those in organizations where hierarchy rules. Gratitude is subversive because it affirms and validates the importance of our connections to one another.”                                       Ed Brenegar, Weekly Leader

Many of the workplace cultures of today send mixed signals to their employees.  While engagement is a big buzzword and most organizations recognize they can’t maintain high levels of productivity without it, people report they feel disconnected and unappreciated.   In a Gallup Poll 65% of participants said they did not feel appreciated at work.  Despite growing productivity rates, higher numbers of workers still express disengagement, low-morale and resentment.

While gratitude is not a panacea for real structural problems within an organization, gratitude and recognition can play an important role in strengthening relational connections between colleagues.   This can serve to build communication, collaboration and shared responsibility.
In their book, “How Full is Your Bucket” co-authors Tom Rath and Donald Clifton use the metaphor of a bucket and a dipper.  The bucket contains positive emotions – and keeping your bucket full  to overflowing is the key.  When we engage our “negative” emotions we empty our own buckets – and deplete the buckets of others.
Because so many of our workplace relationships and cultures are fear-based and riddled with emotions like resentment, anger, jealousy and mistrust,  we are not accustomed to real praise, recognition and appreciation.   As such, we’ve got to go beyond mere politeness, civility and perfunctory thanks to really fill those buckets. It’s got to be perceived and experienced as real.

Gratitude Puts Values Into Action

To truly practice gratitude and have it experienced as authentic often requires a change of mindset – on our part and among others. This can take time. No magic formulas here.  Sometimes if all we can muster towards others is respect for their humanness, we start there.

Often we have to dig a little deeper to find what is right – what is working – in ourselves, others and in the workplace. We have to get out of our preoccupation with the future – and begin to have a greater appreciation of the Now.  Right now, right here in this moment, what can I appreciate – what can I be grateful for? Maybe now is the time to write that thank-you note or help someone out who hasn’t asked.
The power of appreciation and gratitude is a practice that can enrich our lives and contribute to creating healthier and more satisfying workplace cultures by practicing a little every day.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants  

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