The importance of cultivating Gratitude in the workplace

Historically, gratitude has always been studied with people facing each other. But over the last 15 months or so, in the midst of a pandemic that may be fading but refuses to go away, we have had little or limited direct contact.

Then, the fief of digital communication —videoconferences, voice messaging, live streaming, long and short videos, social media stories, voice-based chat rooms— came, conquered, and still reigns, who knows until when.  Few expected that our digital workplace would take such an important place in our lives that quickly, and many things have changed with it. 

We are all living the new normal. Yes, already, we don’t need to wait for it. At a first glance, it looks like our previous lives, but with a mask covering makeup and beards, and gel dispensers scattered in offices and malls. However, some measures and habits that came with the COVID-19 pandemic will get entrenched in our future, if they haven’t already.

In the meantime, an increasingly overlooked value, gratitude, can play an important role in our personal and professional lives, digital and physical, by fostering well-being, focusing on the good and even helping us (re)build the relationships weakened by the pandemic. 

The George Bailey effect —a psychological condition that borrows the name of the iconic “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie’s main character (1946)— is about the sudden realisation of truth. The ancient Greeks named this experience anagnorisis.  

It is about focusing on the good things you have in your life that you take for granted. This effect is an excellent example of how to foster gratitude into your life. In Dr Robert Emmons’ study, an expert in gratitude worldwide, some couples wrote about the ways their lives would have been different if they had never met their spouse. This exercise had a greater impact on their happiness than when they reflected on what they really liked about their husband or wife. 

We invite you to read this article through. It will help you to understand gratitude better and be mindful of the positive things of your workplace. Also, it gives you tips on how to cultivate gratitude with your colleagues or how to improve it if you have already started.

What is gratitude and why does it matter in life?

The definition of gratitude is surprisingly simple: it’s the state of being grateful for something or someone. Although, as when defining love, any further explanation could invalidate it, let’s try a more dissected definition:  It’s a feeling of appreciation that the recipient of kindness, help, favours, or presents feels towards the giver. The latter, however, can be yourself! 

Gratitude has always been around us. We find it referenced in ancient scriptures and books all over the world through centuries, from Buddhas’ Dhammapada—“You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy” and the Quran—“If you give thanks, I will give you more” to the Bible, Confucianism or even Stoic writings—“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others” (Cicero). 

In the present, some of the main gratitude promoters are Brother David Steindl-Rast, Dr. Robert Emmons, the Greater Good Science Center in California or some positive leadership theorists such as Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn or the Center for Positive Organizations.

Gratitude matters in life because studies show that it improves physical, psychological and social development. According to research, including the influential book The Gratitude Project, grateful people will exercise more, sleep longer, experience more positive emotions, make more progress towards their goal, are more helpful and feel less isolated than a non-grateful group of people. 

Also, being grateful enables individuals to savour positive experiences, cope with stressful circumstances, have higher resilience to stress, and strengthen social relationships. Besides, the greater the number of gratitude experiences people have on a given day, the better they feel overall with a greater feeling of satisfaction with life.

If gratitude is that good, why is it underused at work?

The first thing to acknowledge is that we’re less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anywhere else. On the other hand, people are ranking their jobs last on a list of things they are grateful for, according to Jeremy Adam Smith and Kira Newman from University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Many more reasons can be identified to explain why gratitude is underused: 

  • We usually believe that expressing gratitude could lead coworkers to take advantage of us because it makes ourselves vulnerable. 
  • We tend to think that a paycheck is enough as a thank you for our work.
  • We can also see the workplace as contractual and monetary (or financial), therefore not leaving space for the human. 
  • We’re also prone to think that nothing is free at work, that no one gives away anything without expecting something in return.
  • Another common idea is that “we do what we do at work because we are paid for it” otherwise someone else will take our spot. Could, then, there be any room for gratitude in the office? 
  • We have the wrong beliefs about gratitude and its effects. We believe that people know why we are grateful for them without stating it clearly. That’s not the case though. Some feelings, especially the ones linked to interpersonal relationships need reaffirmation. People you work (or live) with need to know about your gratitude.
  • We don’t pay attention to gratitude in our daily lives and fail to consider expressing gratitude when felt.
  • However, according to Bernard de Villepin, one of the professionals at PwC Luxembourg who knows best about this matter, the most important reason to underuse gratitude at the workplace is “the gratitude gap”. We can see that people desire a grateful workplace but don’t act on it.

Survey from the John Templeton Foundation done in America in 2013
Survey from the John Templeton Foundation done in America in 2013

The gratitude gap 

Yes, we are missing out or not noticing grateful opportunities. The gratitude gap happens when we don’t express gratitude as much as we should, diminishing the powerful effect it has on others —both for the giver and the receiver.

Humans have the natural tendency to focus more on bad things. Yes, that obnoxious negativity bias! The Templeton Survey mentioned above shows that people have expectations about gratitude, however, they don’t act for numerous and acceptable reasons. 

As long as the gratitude gap isn’t closed, people suppress gratitude demonstrations in the workplace, sometimes actively, neglecting themselves a dose of happiness. 

How to go about this, then? How to close this gap? Read through, you will find the answer some paragraphs later. 

We tend to think of organisations as transactional places where you’re supposed to be professional. We may think that it’s unprofessional to bring things like forgiveness or gratitude or compassion into the workplace.

Ryan Fehr, professor of management – University of Washington

Why foster gratitude at work?

Kim Cameron, founding member of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, has identified numerous reasons. According to over 20 years of research, virtuous practices including gratitude help to improve organisations’ profitability, productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, among others. 

Yes, apart from gratitude, there are other virtuous practices, for instance, counting one’s own blessings, showing compassion when people are struggling or suffering or having generosity of spirit. Gratitude, though, is cost effective, quick, available to everyone, and there are no known negative side effects. 

But being grateful is also powerful because it stops hedonic adaptation, which is defined as the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events. 

We adapt to realities, situations and possessions that we have in life, and we put them in the trunk of cotidianity, sometimes to the point of ceasing to perceive them. Positive things such as a new phone, a new job or a new friend, or negative things such as a disease or a loss. 

Likely your job feels boring and mediocre sometimes, especially after several years. Now, why not recall how you felt when you received the news that you were accepted? You were probably happy and satisfied with yourself but now that time has gone by,  you have adapted and the feelings have changed. Sadly, that’s a common path we humans follow. 

Gratitude can stop that and help you savor what you have to keep enjoying your life.

One more reason to foster gratitude at work is that it could improve performance. For instance, in a study on 41 people in a center to raise university funds, Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that, when being encouraged with a gratitude expression, fundraisers increased the number of calls by 50%.

“I am really grateful for your hard work. 

We really sincerely appreciate your contributions to the university”

How to foster gratitude at work?

Jeremy Adam Smith, editor of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine and of a comprehensive gratitude-related book in 2021, shares five research-tested tips for fostering a gratitude culture in the workplace. 

These tips can be followed even when we’re using digital communication tools such as videoconference, emails, websites, online chat platforms and so on, to bring out the best of the situation.

Start at the top. Employees need to hear “thank you” from the boss first. To establish gratitude as an organisation’s norm, people with power have to express gratitude in a clear, consistent and genuine way in both public and private settings. Another possibility is asking employees “How do you wish to be thanked?”, as we know that, often, the expected reward system is  more than just money.

Thank the people who never (or very rarely) get thanked. Every organisation has their star employees attracting most of the glory or the attention. Might it be their personality, the way they communicate or their ability to build relationships —all of them soft skills— but this truth is undeniable. 

Thanking those who do thankless work is crucial because it provides the foundation for gratitude at every level of the organisation. Making small contributions —namely, simple acts that make an organisation running— visible, and showing public gratitude in a consistent way increase understanding of how the organisation culture is conceived, lived and developed.

Aim for quality, not quantity. Mind that we cannot mandate that people ought to be grateful. Forced behaviours produce both personal and team imbalance that ultimately undermines gratitude. The goal is to create qualitative, spontaneous and voluntary expressions of gratitude. Think about how people like to be thanked and, if you don’t know, ask them because details are decisive. Because each individual’s language of appreciation is different, we risk miscommunication by assuming that everyone likes to receive a card, a coffee, or public praise.

Provide many opportunities for gratitude. Some organisations provide gratitude journals to all of their employees; other companies create appreciation platforms allowing employees to publicly recognise each other —we at PwC Luxembourg use one called “Spotlight” and results, so far, are positive— some others create a gratitude wall. Just remember that the thank-you target should always be the person, not the situation or thing you want to thank this person for. 

In the wake of a crisis, take time for thanksgiving. In complex times such as the one we’re currently living in, which comes with change, frustration and numerous challenges—whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals—cultivating gratitude and making it a policy and a practice make people more resilient to stress. As a matter of fact, in these circumstances, gratitude is vital to elicit positive emotions because it helps us to see the big picture or a broader horizon, among other benefits.

Every meeting, physical or digital, is an opportunity to show gratitude The Greater Good Science Center starts every single meeting by going around the room and simply asking people to identify what’s the best thing that’s happened to them  in the last week or month. This methodology is based on the 2010’s book by Frank Barrett et Ronald E. Fry. One of the central ideas of the book revolves around the importance of asking others “what is the best thing that has happened to you since the last time we spoke?” rather than a simple and sometimes soulless  “how are you?”. This question will lead to a very different answer.

In conclusion

Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation that can be easily expressed and developed. Ways to do so are countless, however, despite being underused at work for many reasons, it’s possible to close the “gratitude gap”. 

Still in the midst of this pandemic, we should focus on how to foster gratitude to get the best of the situation and ourselves. The massive use of digital communication tools, that won’t go away any time soon, can help us foster gratitude in our lives and in the workplace too by being consistent and authentic. 

We have the chance to make the most of the so-called “new normal” or what comes after,  by starting to implement gratitude practices and use them consistently.

What we think
Bernard de Villepin, Digital Strategist and Business Coach at PwC Luxembourg
Bernard de Villepin, Data Strategist and Business Coach at PwC Luxembourg

I like to believe, just like the Roman Stoic Cicero wrote 2000 years ago, that gratitude is the parent of all other virtues. In today’s modern workplace, we want to foster advanced soft skills like emotional intelligence, active listening or empathy. However, these skills are difficult to reach as they need personal experimentation and reflection during a long period of time.

Gratitude is an enabler. It’s easy to experiment, powerful, cost-efficient and will give room to develop soft skills that are more emotionally demanding. For me, gratitude can be the first piece of the puzzle but is too often overlooked. It’s a deep emotion that could change the way one sees life and lives it.

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