Positive comments or behaviour can have beneficial effects on others, says Dr Rob Yeung, leading to a greater sense of well-being and improved work satisfaction levels
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This article was first published in the November/December 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Mounting evidence suggests that gratitude is associated with multiple benefits in the workplace. However, it’s worth differentiating between various aspects of gratitude.
Two people can have almost identical circumstances in life yet one can feel more grateful. Trait gratitude is a personality characteristic, reflecting someone’s tendency towards being grateful for their experiences in life. More usefully, felt gratitude is an emotion, a sense of wonder and thankfulness, often brought about within an individual as the result of positive comments or behaviour from another person. Finally, expressed gratitude comprises the set of comments or behaviour that a person may use to evoke felt gratitude within someone else.
A recent study led by Portland State University’s Alicia Starkey monitored 146 hospital workers over 12 weeks. Employees who were thanked more often at work reported feeling more satisfied with their work. They also reported sleeping better at night and fewer headaches.
What is remarkable about the study is that the researchers simply asked their participants how often they were thanked. It did not require expensive or elaborate shows of appreciation in order to generate more felt gratitude in the participants. Simply hearing others say ‘thank you’ more often made a difference to both their work satisfaction and well-being.
In a separate investigation, business researchers Adam Grant and Francesca Gino tested the effects of a one-off instance of expressed gratitude on employees’ performance. The first control group of salaried university fundraisers phoned potential donors as usual. A second experimental group received a short visit from the university’s director of annual giving who simply said to them: ‘I am very grateful for your hard work. We sincerely appreciate your contributions to the university.’
During the duration of the experiment, the control group of fundraisers on average made 41 outgoing phone calls. The experimental group of fundraisers who experienced the in-person expressed gratitude made on average 63 outgoing calls. Given that all of the fundraisers were salaried and did not receive bonuses for their call activity, the researchers concluded that the expressed gratitude had been substantially effective at boosting those employees’ motivation. It is perhaps worth noting that it only took a mere 16 words of thanks to increase massively their performance.
Don’t take it for granted
A critic might argue that it should be obvious that gratitude matters. However, employee opinion surveys routinely show that more employees feel underappreciated rather than overly praised and recognised for their work. Ideally, we might wish to believe that it should be obvious that gratitude matters; however, the reality is that most people either underestimate its importance or are so caught up in their own work and problems that they forget to express their gratitude towards others. Supporting this interpretation, researchers Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business have gathered data showing that those that express gratitude greatly underestimate how happy the recipients feel.
Employees may also find it useful to express gratitude towards their managers. Studies have found that managers who feel insecure about their competence are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour towards employees, such as putting employees down and being excessively critical.
In other words, thanking difficult managers or showing appreciation for whatever you find genuinely positive about their leadership may be a useful tactic for reducing their mistreatment of you. Of course, this may be the last thing you want to do, but it may at least give you a little more space in the short-term to consider your longer-term options.
Also bear in mind that expressing gratitude may not be helpful in all situations. For instance, according to a new study led by researcher Jeremy Yip, expressing gratitude during a negotiation may create the impression that you are forgiving by nature; this in turn may inadvertently encourage other parties to attempt to exploit you. As a result, it may be more appropriate to reserve your expressions of gratitude for collegial rather than competitive circumstances.
CPD technical article
"Employees who were thanked more often at work reported feeling more satisfied with their work"