Thank you – two of the most powerful words that can be spoken in any workplace.  And yet, with studies finding that incivility rates in most workplaces are rising, why is saying “thank you” becoming less and less likely?

“Sometimes, a powerful factor in holding back on expressing our gratitude is believing that it might be awkward, or make the other person feel uncomfortable,” explained Professor Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California and author of The Psychology of Gratitude, when we interviewed him recently on the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.  

“However, studies show that we’re likely to undervalue gratitude, underestimate its positive effect on others, and overestimate the awkwardness the recipients would feel.  So, there could be a huge gap between your expectations and reality,” Bob explained.  “Rather than letting worry about how you’re going to appear, or how the other person will react, get in the way of gratitude, just try expressing your genuine feelings of appreciation for others whenever you can.”

Bob’s research has found that gratitude is a combination of two elements – affirmation and recognition:

  • It begins with affirming the good.  So, you notice and affirm that there is good in you, in others, and in the world around you.  It’s saying “yes” to life.  This doesn’t mean denying that pain, suffering, or bad things exist, but it’s about focusing on the good.
  • It expands by recognizing that the source of this good is outside of you.  Often the good comes from other people, but it could be any source outside of yourself, such as a spiritual being or power, the universe, or even from your pets.  It’s acknowledging that you have been given gifts, big and small, to help you achieve the goodness in your life.

The research findings to date suggest that gratitude can improve our happiness, wellbeing, and mood.  But gratitude is much more than this, with data indicating it has the power to heal, energize, and change our lives at a psychological, emotional, relational, and physical level as it activates our brains across different networks, including those relating to pleasure, rewards, and social perspective-taking.

As a result, studies have also found that gratitude in workplaces has measurable benefits for both organizations and employees.  It helps builds cultures rooted in positivity, creates a better employee experience, has been found to reduce turnover and absenteeism, and increases engagement, productivity, and citizenship behavior.

So, what can you do to improve gratitude in your workplace?

  • Creating gratitude habits – While research has found that there are many effective ways to practice gratitude, one size does not fit all.  Any practice you choose needs to be seamlessly integrated into your life and within your organization so that it feels organic rather than something tacked on.  Finding ways to make gratitude a habit – so that eventually, it becomes a more integrated and automatic practice – can have a much bigger impact by helping you or your organization go from the specific discreet instances of gratitude to a more fundamental, grateful culture and grateful way of life.
  • Choosing gratitude as a way of life – It’s not just based upon receiving favors or tangible benefits, on what you get or don’t get, or what happens or doesn’t happen.  Gratitude as a way of life is independent of circumstances.  It’s about waking up in the morning and saying, “Wow, I’m so fortunate to be alive,” or, “I’ve been given another day in which to be useful.  What can I do today?”  Developing this orientation towards life can be a long journey, where you progress in small steps – for example, start by keeping a gratitude journal – before you get to this deeper way of life.  Gratitude as a way of life can give you a much greater sense of resilience because it doesn’t go up and down as circumstances change.
  • Instigating a peer-to-peer recognition system – To help weave gratitude into the fabric of your culture at work, rather than it being seen as the latest trendy fad or a tactic to extract more out of your people, create a peer-to-peer recognition system.  While it can be important to receive top-down recognition in your workplace, a peer-to-peer recognition system that transcends teams, departments, and titles has been found to be a much more powerful way to show gratitude.  It can feel more meaningful because your peers are who you spend most of your work time with, so they know what you do when you are at your best, and how you might want to be recognized.

What gratitude habit can you introduce into your daily routine at work?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.