How to Build a Culture of Gratitude at Work

by John Estafanous in November 13th, 2019
How to Build a Culture of Gratitude at Work

If you think a culture of gratitude at work is just a touchy-feely nice-to-have, you may want to think again. Several recent studies on the benefits of gratitude suggest that not only is gratitude great for our health, sleep and stress reduction; but it also pays off at work, resulting in greater job satisfaction, higher productivity and employee retention, and stronger teams.

One explanation of these benefits is that gratitude fuels resilience – that secret sauce of long-term outperformance. It does this by shifting our focus away from whatever challenge we’re currently facing (e.g. a rushed deadline) and towards what is already helping us to be successful (e.g. helpful colleagues, an understanding spouse).

It turns out that it’s human nature to focus more on our barriers than our blessings, a bias psychologists have dubbed “the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry.” By refocusing on gratitude, we shift our attitude to one of greater positivity, openness to growth, and creative problem-solving – all important ingredients of resilience.

Unfortunately, gratitude is in low supply at many workplaces. A 2013 survey by the John Templeton Foundation found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. It also found that while most people report feeling better when they thank someone at work, only a small number regularly do so. (Seventy percent of all workers report that they receive no praise or recognition at work.)

With so much to gain, why not take a few steps to jumpstart a culture of gratitude in your workplace? Whether you lead a team or work on one, here are a few ways you can get high-impact gratitude flowing at your organization.

Develop your own gratitude habit

While we may not think about them as much as our other habits, we all have emotional habits. Maybe anxiety is your norm as you commute into work. Or irritability surfaces the moment you see that one colleague heading to your desk. Try to shift to a habit of experiencing gratitude every time you go to work.

To help you do this, University of Washington’s Ryan Fehr suggests expanding the well from which you draw your gratitude. For example, in addition to feeling grateful for others, you can feel gratitude for the opportunity you have to help others – to make a difference – through your work. And you can also feel thankful for the skills you’re developing at your job – your personal and professional growth). The key is to use a grateful lens to transform ambiguous events into positive ones. By doing so, you achieve a state of what Fehr calls “persistent gratitude.”

If you lead an organization or manage a team, take note: research shows that your employees need to hear thank-yous from you more than from anyone else. Your approach to gratitude carries a great deal of weight. Be consistent and authentic in your thanks, and express it both privately and publicly.

Match your expressions of appreciation to their recipients

Gary Chapman is well known for his work on the five love languages, and he’s also helped define what he calls “the five languages of appreciation” in the workplace. The idea is that the practices that make people feel appreciated differ from person to person. Every person has a preferred language of appreciation. Whether it’s words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, tangible gifts or (office-appropriate) physical touch, people want to be recognized and thanked in ways that are meaningful to them.

So how do you determine which appreciation language will resonate with a specific member of your team? Start with observation. Take notice of how the person expresses appreciation to others, as well as what they request of others. Are they generous with verbal praise and thank-yous? Their language may be words of affirmation. If you’re their manager, do they seek out one-on-one time with you for input or feedback? Quality time is high on their list. Finally, listen to their complaints. Do they seem irked to be solely in charge of a tedious chore? If so, they may be looking for a colleague to pitch in (acts of service) to feel supported.

Thank people who rarely get thanked

Most organizations have some employees who get thanked mostly as an afterthought. These employees often work in support roles, such as HR, accounting, IT support and janitorial. Thanking them highlights the interdependence of everyone in your organization and sets the bar high for inclusive and organization-wide gratitude. Be authentic in your gratitude by articulating how you, your team or your company benefits from the person’s action. By making their contributions more visible with your recognition, you’ll also boost morale and trust across your organization as a whole.

Create gratitude-giving opportunities

For a culture of gratitude to spread, give everyone a chance to participate. This could be as informal as starting your weekly or monthly meetings with a round of recognition/gratitude where everyone takes a turn. Some companies keep office-wide gratitude journals and invite all employees to contribute. (If you’re not already familiar with gratitude journals, these research-backed tips for deriving the greatest psychological benefits from yours are helpful, and they’re from gratitude-research superstar Robert Emmons.) A similar idea is a gratitude box where employees write down something positive that happened at work or at home. Choose one of these, or think of an alternative, to give gratitude a more consistent presence in your office.

As social animals, our behaviors at work greatly influence our colleagues’ behaviors. When you make an effort to express more gratitude it’s likely your colleagues will up their expressions of appreciation as well. Research also suggests that a culture of gratitude delivers a spillover effect. When people are thanked, they become more trusting with one another and also more likely to help one another. And that we’re-all-in-this-together attitude is one of the strongest foundations for great teamwork.

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