Faced with a seemingly never-ending pandemic winter and pressure-filled jobs, we can all use a morale booster. An easy way to give your co-workers and employees a much-needed boost is to show appreciation.
Scientific research on the many benefits of gratitude has proliferated in recent years. In this summary, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explain how leaders can harness this powerful tool to boost morale, increase productivity and create a positive work environment.
The “Gurus of Gratitude,” best-selling authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton of All In and The Carrot Principle, contend that the best way to boost morale, increase productivity and create a positive work environment is to show your employees that you’re grateful for them. Fulfilling people’s desire for recognition and appreciation brings about amazing results. Yet, many leaders fall victim to what Gostick and Elton call “Ingratitude Myths,” which prevent them from harnessing this powerful tool. The authors provide eight transformative strategies for “leading with gratitude” to help you create a workplace culture populated by upbeat, motivated, and productive employees.
- Express gratitude so your employees feel appreciated and motivated.
- Ignore “Ingratitude Myths,” incorrect beliefs that keep managers from expressing gratitude.
- Carry out eight gratitude practices.
- “Solicit and act on input” so you gain from your employees’ knowledge.
- “Assume positive intent” so you can help people resolve hindrances to high performance.
- “Walk in their shoes” to develop empathy for your team members.
- “Look for small wins” to increase engagement and productivity.
- “Give it now, give it often, don’t be afraid.” Don’t save gratitude for performance reviews.
- “Tailor to the individual” so your praise is meaningful.
- “Reinforce core values” by celebrating behaviors that align with corporate values.
- “Make it peer-to-peer” because people value recognition from their friends and colleagues.
Express gratitude so your employees feel appreciated and motivated.
Showing your authentic gratitude to your employees for their endeavors helps keep them motivated, committed, and feeling positive about their jobs and their contributions to the company. Yet, most managers do not put gratitude high on their list of priorities, thus bypassing one of the most effective ways to boost morale, performance, and productivity. Even when managers believe they are showing gratitude, employees often feel undervalued and unacknowledged.
Statistics show that an overwhelming majority of workers would apply themselves more if they believed leaders appreciated their efforts. This “gratitude gap” is the chasm between knowing the positive effects of expressing gratitude and failing to act on that knowledge. Genuine gratitude results from tuning in to your employees’ activities and showing empathy for their challenges and joy in their accomplishments.
“Gratitude has been shown to have a direct and lasting impact on the giver – thus, the more gratitude we experience and the more we offer to others, the more satisfied we generally will be with our lives.”
Be present to catch positive outcomes as they happen so you can respond with sincere appreciation. You’ll develop closer relationships with the members of your team and gain an understanding of how they work, react to challenges and solve problems. Employees led by grateful managers score higher on productivity, engagement, personal well-being, and ability to deliver customer satisfaction. They’re more likely to stay with an organization and their health improves. They, too, practice gratitude and spread positive feelings among their teammates.
Ignore “Ingratitude Myths,” incorrect beliefs that keep managers from expressing gratitude.
Managers withhold praise for many reasons. Insecurity causes some to forego sharing credit. Others worry that thanking people conveys weakness. Some leaders wrongly believe that offering praise relieves the pressure team members need to be productive. Consider whether you believe these Ingratitude Myths:
- “Fear is the best motivator”: Some managers scare employees, believing fear will light a fire under them. Fear may make people work harder in the short term, but prolonged stress over time thwarts productivity. Fear-based management breeds defensiveness, combativeness, contempt, and subterfuge. Ford CEO Alan Mulally inherited a culture of fear. He injected a philosophy of transparency, collaboration, and gratitude into the company. When he took charge, employee engagement at Ford was around 20%; eight years later, it hovered around 91%.
- “People want way too much praise these days”: Few employees complain about too much praise. Everyone desires recognition and compliments. Workers from younger generations frankly communicate this desire. Millennials and Gen Zs see expressions of gratitude as recognition that they are on the right track.
- “There’s just no time”: Managers who complain that they don’t have time to express gratitude place more faith in hard skills than soft ones. Gratitude is a “multiplier.” It cements relationships between team leaders and team members, paving the way for employees to offer suggestions, identify problems, and correct mistakes. The boost in efficiency and the gains in employee retention justify the relatively small investment of time.
- “I’m not wired to feel it”: Some people innately feel and express gratitude. The capacity for gratitude and the ability to use soft skills, such as offering empathy and listening to other people, improve with practice and repetition.
- “I save my praise for those who deserve it”: Managers tend to dole out praise to strong performers or those in high-visibility jobs. Yet, employees in support roles can have an outsized influence. For example, Candice Philipps, a custodian in a Midwestern hospital, interacted with people when they were sick, weak, and scared. Her kindness and commitment to her job had a pronounced positive effect on people when they were most vulnerable.
- “It’s all about” money: While providing adequate financial compensation is crucial, monetary awards alone do not motivate people as gratitude does. A 2012 study showed that once people earn a comfortable level of income, gratitude becomes more important to them than cash awards and bonuses.
- “They’ll think I’m bogus”: Some managers worry that if they start showing gratitude, team members will distrust their sudden change in attitude. If you explain how and why you are trying to improve in this area, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. If you’re authentic and consistent, those you praise will welcome the new you.
Carry out eight gratitude practices.
Successful leaders follow eight deliberate strategies to demonstrate that they value and appreciate their employees.
1. “Solicit and act on input” so you gain from your employees’ knowledge.
Ask your employees for their feedback and listen to what they tell you. For example, the CEO of a 75-year-old manufacturing company asked its 2,000 employees for advice when the company was losing ground to its competitors. People offered ideas. The company paid attention. Three years later, sales had increased by 20%, and the plant had reduced its manufacturing time from two weeks to six hours.
“Of course, the advice to actively solicit input from employees is not new, but in our work, we have rarely seen managers doing it. Even more rare is to see them follow through on suggestions.”
Kent Taylor, founder, and CEO of the profitable Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, credit employee ideas for some of the company’s most successful innovations. These include the introduction of line dancing, a country music routine that originated with a freewheeling store manager and is now standard throughout the chain. Taylor solicits suggestions and sends thank-you notes to everyone who steps up. When management puts an employee’s idea into action, it raises everyone’s morale and fosters greater employee engagement.
2. “Assume positive intent” so you can help people resolve hindrances to high performance.
In general, people want to perform well. Often, they fail due to reasons outside their control, such as lack of resources or training. Leaders who ascribe negative motivations to employees get angry quickly and feel annoyed when someone approaches them with a problem. Occasionally an employee will act in bad faith, but most people have good intentions. In a low-trust work setting, people hide mistakes and problems because they fear the consequences. Yet, making mistakes is an integral part of the creative process. As Garry Ridge, CEO of the WD-40 Company, explains: “Around here we don’t have mistakes; we have learning moments.”
When confronted with a screw-up, speak directly to the people involved. Rather than assume you know the cause or causes of the error, line up all the facts. Approach the problem to prevent it from occurring again rather than placing blame. Align your body language with your open and receptive attitude.
3. “Walk in their shoes” to develop empathy for your team members.
A disheartening reality is that most leaders have little direct knowledge of their employees’ daily activities and challenges. Empathy is a critical management skill, and you must understand what people are going through to feel empathetic toward them.
“We’ve never ceased to be amazed by how little many leaders know about the challenges their people are wrestling with in their daily work.”
To gain insight into how your employees feel about their work, observe it or experience it for yourself. A leadership program at California Fairmont Hotel requires upper managers to work in a frontline job one day every year. Executives credit the practice with helping them appreciate such jobs as housekeeping and for giving them the knowledge that often leads to improvements.
4. “Look for small wins” to increase engagement and productivity.
Celebrating people’s little victories increases employee engagement and productivity. Ken Chenault, former chairman of American Express, believes these “pats on the back” show people that they’re doing well. Express gratitude to the employees who get things done every day.
“One of the most distinctive attributes we’ve seen in great executives – aside from better hair than us – is that they notice and express appreciation for small-scale efforts as much as they celebrate major achievements.”
Pay attention to and applaud incremental triumphs by asking people to draw attention to other team members’ achievements. Also, permit them to point out their own accomplishments. For example, Ameet Mallik, Executive VP of US Novartis Oncology, sets aside time during weekly department meetings for team members to share moments that make them feel proud or grateful. Offer positive reinforcement moments when people reach “mini-milestones” such as weekly or monthly goals. Give credit and attention to the company’s problem solvers and mediators.
5. “Give it now, give it often, don’t be afraid.” Don’t save gratitude for performance reviews.
Many leaders save praise for annual performance reviews. That quantitative assessment is a helpful tool for highlighting employees’ strengths and identifying areas for improvement. However, if you express gratitude only during formal meetings, you’ll miss day-to-day opportunities to reinforce positive behaviors, boost morale and strengthen relationships. Quantitative metrics cannot measure qualitative contributions, which may not show up on the bottom line.
Instead, express appreciation generously, and tailor your message to align with the receiver’s personal values. When you give someone timely praise, you’re reinforcing their behavior. For example, a hospital conducted a study on the effect of positive feedback to encourage hand washing. An electronic board outside the restroom that flashed, “Thanks for staying clean for our patients!” increased compliance rates to a whopping 90%. A Gallup survey showed that people remain engaged at work if they receive acknowledgment for their contributions about once a week.
6. “Tailor to the individual” so your praise is meaningful.
Expressions of gratitude are not one-size-fits-all. Different things motivate different people. Individualize your expressions of appreciation by aligning them to what the receiver values.
“Smart leaders use that knowledge of individual motivators to tailor expressions of gratitude to each team member.”
A team of behavioral scientists found 23 commonly appreciated workplace motivators, including “autonomy, creativity, empathy, friendship, fun, learning, prestige, purpose, and variety.” One person might value autonomy more than collaboration; another might care more about learning than developing others. Someone who prizes creativity might enjoy an opportunity to pitch an innovation, while a person who desires prestige might appreciate an engraved plaque. Generic expressions of gratitude are the least meaningful. Bear in mind the difference between saying, “Thanks for the report” and “Thanks for the report. It was well-researched, detailed, and accurate, which makes my life easier.”
7. “Reinforce core values” by celebrating behaviors that align with corporate values.
For values to become an integral part of a company’s day-to-day operations, recognize and applaud people’s actions. For example, a laundry employee at a hotel chain found a roll of money in a pillowcase. When she turned it into the manager’s office, the guest had just realized that he’d left his cash behind. The manager praised the laundry employee publicly, saying, “Integrity is essential. If our guests can’t trust the hotel, they won’t stay here – it’s that simple.”
“Gratitude offers an opportunity to put the flesh of specificity on the bones of core values.”
Managers at the Miller Group commend employees at an annual company-wide event and tell stories about how they exemplify the company’s values.
8. “Make it peer-to-peer” because people value recognition from their friends and colleagues.
Peer-to-peer gratitude is as powerful a driver of human emotion as manager-to-employee appreciation. When team members recognize each other’s contributions, they build relationships, foster trust and create a bubble of “psychological safety.” People feel free to express their ideas, take risks and ask for support. Peer-to-peer gratitude increases engagement and decreases turnover by 35%, according to a Simply Talent poll. Peer-to-peer appreciation is self-perpetuating; leaders seldom need to take action to keep it going.
About the Authors
Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton co-founded the consulting group, The Culture Works, and co-wrote the business bestsellers All In, The Best Team Wins, and The Carrot Principle. Their website is GostickandElton.com.