Does your company suffer from Gratitude Deficit Disorder?

Feb 16, 2017 | AgileAus, Feature Articles, Guest Blogs

In this article, Melbourne University Professor of Positive Psychology, Dr Lea Waters, shows us how gratitude can play a surprisingly significant role in workplace culture.

When was the last time someone thanked you at work? Does your company have an employee recognition program? How about a company newsletter that has a regular gratitude column or a workplace that has gratitude awards? 

Gratitude is a core, but often overlooked, aspect of creating a healthy workplace culture. Many organisations suffer from gratitude deficit disorder. In a recent study of over 2000 employees conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, gratitude was noticeably absent. In fact, only 10% of employees reported that they regularly express gratitude at work. Curiously, despite 90% not showing gratitude almost all employees reported that gratitude was important and 93% reported that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed. Clearly, there is a mismatch between the importance placed on gratitude and the actual expression of gratitude at work.  

This mismatch is not new. Back in the mid 1980s when researchers at Western Kentucky University asked 35,000 employees what they really want from their jobs and then contrasted this to what supervisors thought their employees want, a similar incongruity was found. The supervisors answered that salary was the most important factor for employees yet the number one answer from employees was that they wanted to feel fully appreciated for the work they did. 

Why is gratitude suppressed at work?  

In the companies I consult to I have observed three chief reasons. 

First, the ‘economic argument’ – we are paying you, that’s thanks enough – sometimes gets in the way. We all know that people work not only for financial reasons but also for psychological and social reasons. Work is a big part of most people’s identity. When we thank someone at work, we are recognising their contribution. In essence we are saying “I value you, you are an important part of this team.” A pay cheque gives one form of recognition but gratitude is more likely to meet an employee’s psychological and social needs. The added bonus for companies is that gratitude is free! 

Second, some people feel that gratitude creates indebtedness. In the Berkeley study 35% of employees believed that expressing gratitude could lead co-workers to take advantage of them. In an Australian study conducted with school leaders, Principals and Vice Principals reported that expressing gratitude can sometimes backfire. However, these same Principals and Vice Principals reported that the benefits of expressing gratitude far outweighed the shortcomings. The way around this potential barrier is to create a culture where gratitude is a sign of strength rather than weakness. 

The third, and probably biggest, reason I have found for the absence of gratitude in the workplace is simply that leaders underestimate its importance. We take gratitude for granted. We assume that our team knows how much we value them and we underrate the powerful effect that saying thank you can have. The phrase ‘thank you’ is seemingly small and simple, so simple that leaders often don’t realise the power of these words. But when we really stop and think about it, we know that gratitude is a positive force, not only at work but also in our friendships, marriages and relationships with our children. Just think about the last time someone stopped you at work and thanked you – I bet it made you feel good and re-energised you for your next task. 

In one of my studies on gratitude within the financial and education sectors, gratitude was found to account for close to 25% of employee job satisfaction. That’s a quarter of the pie coming solely from having a culture of gratitude at work. In another study I asked organisational leaders to adopt gratitude practices for one month. The leaders kept a gratitude journal where they recorded three things each day that they felt thankful for at work, they used gratitude in staff meetings, on bulletin boards, and in newsletters. They wrote letters of thanks to chosen colleagues. Gratitude is an emotion that puts stress into perspective and is a form of relationship glue. So it’s no wonder that, at the end of the month-long study, the leaders reported that it was easier to see the bigger picture at work and that they had a better appreciation of the value of work relationships. Leaders also said that integrating gratitude into their work roles had given them hope, happiness, and optimism. 

The evidence is clear that gratitude plays a big role in employee happiness and relationships. What will you do this week at work to combat gratitude deficit disorder? 

By the way, thanks for reading my article…

Dr Lea Waters is also author of the forthcoming book, The Strength Switch.


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