The Struggle to Show Authentic Gratitude at Work


We are all familiar with the concept of gratitude. It might be how we feel when our grandma makes our favorite meal, or when our friend does us a favor, or how we feel as we ponder our good fortune in life. We are taught by our parents, in magazines, and in self-help books that being grateful makes for a happier life.

In leadership circles and research, there is a lot of talk about adding gratitude to your work culture as well, and there is a good reason for it. Gratitude is credited with employees having increased job satisfaction along with working harder and taking fewer sick days. A Glassdoor survey found that eighty percent of employees said they would work harder for an appreciative boss. It seems that just like at home, gratitude is a big win for everyone involved.

Let’s look at some studies on gratitude

But don’t just take my word for it. Gratitude has been scientifically proven to increase happiness and productivity. Harvard Health found that giving thanks can make you happier. Additionally, one workplace study found that when fundraising volunteers for a scholarship met recipients of the scholarship, they (not unexpectedly) made more calls. When workers monitored how grateful they were at work, Harvard Business Review reports they were kinder to coworkers.

And while these studies make sense when we think about it, they do not speak to our credit union workspace. We are not alumni callers or people in a research study. And unlike at home, we don’t have a grandma making our favorite pie. Furthermore, none of these studies really give an idea of exactly how to show gratitude at work.

It starts at the top

This may be obvious, but to include gratitude in a culture, its leaders must act as role models. If employees feel that this type of activity is not part of the culture, they are far less likely to show it to coworkers.

Check out the example of Campbell’s CEO Douglas Conant. During his tenure, he sent over 30,000 personalized thank yous to his employees, as he found doing so improved morale and productivity. Inspired by Conant, Harvard Business Review turned this on its head by setting aside a special thank you day around Thanksgiving where employees are given time to write thank you letters to each other.

Gratitude, however, does not need to have a special day or a monster record number of letters sent to be effective. Geoff Johnson, CEO at CU*Answers, recommends you simply “take the opportunity often to say, ‘I appreciate you.’” Johnson adds this does not have to be a big thing, but “just that you are willing to acknowledge that work can and does speak volumes.”

It starts at the bottom too

We all know that if it is only from the top, a culture of gratitude will not develop. It must be all-encompassing to be a culture shift. A true culture shift really does not occur until the entire organization shows gratitude to each other. It really must be up and down the line.

This is not easy to do. We are not wired to show outpourings of thanks all the time, nor should we do that since it may water down its impact. Let’s look at a few accessible ways to improve our culture at work.

The Center on Creative Leadership contends that learning gratitude will make you a better leader. The article notes that you should give thanks for people, not actions. Second, it notes you should customize your appreciation in a manner that speaks to the person you are thanking. Third, be specific in your thanks and how the act affected you personally.

Whew! That is a tall order. So how do you translate that to a work environment?

Practical ways to show gratitude in the office

In order to show gratitude, it’s essential to first know how people like to receive gratitude. Get to know your coworker, bosses, and leaders beyond the number of children they have and their pets. Know how they like to have gratitude shown to them and customize your gratitude to the recipient.

Maybe you feel most appreciated when it is in a public-facing way, for example being thanked in a large meeting for the success of a project. For others, this is worse than no appreciation at all. Consider when it might be better to document your gratitude in a short note or email.

As for bosses, there are a few easy ways to show gratitude to your staff. Let people go home early on a week they have put in a lot of time. Or just recognize that they have put in the extra hours. In addition to verbal gratitude, try bringing in food and treats. Additionally, let people have a bad day. Recognize personal situations and give people some grace on their worst days. Be respectful of family obligations.

What does work gratitude not look like?

When looking at what gratitude looks like at work, let’s also talk about what it is not. Even though all the articles discussed in the previous section have the word “thanks” in them, the simple relaying of the overused “Thanks!” at the end of an email does not cut it. We see it so often (and some people have even made it part of their signature line), that the word alone has ceased to have real meaning with most.

Finally, and most importantly, always, always be authentic when you express gratitude. False gratitude is worse than none at all. We give tells when we are not being straight with one another. Wait until you have time to reflect on how a person made a difference and show gratitude at that later date. If you have not picked up anything from this article, read that again.

Make gratitude a part of your day

Now that this article has given you some building blocks to speak more effectively about gratitude in the workplace, work to make it an everyday part of your work routine. Take the time to show gratitude. Start small. We all spend a lot of time at work. Your grandma isn’t baking pie here, but hopefully, it inspired you to show the same gratitude to your coworkers that you would to her.

If you are feeling that this is a tall order, you are not alone. Shifting your team to be a team of gratitude is a tall order, but it is possible. Remember, culture change is possible if you include everyone.


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