Everywhere you look, there is an article about gratitude. Many of them are about why gratitude is so important at work. But you already know this stuff. In fact, you wouldn’t be in a senior leadership role if you didn’t already have an attitude of gratitude. You understand how game-changing it can be to express gratitude and appreciation for others.
The challenge is creating a culture of gratitude, isn’t it?
Consider that transformation starts with individuals
Empowering employees to play a role in improving the workplace is one of the biggest challenges we face. While you can do a lot to institutionalise change, it’s really the individuals who work in your business day after day who give your culture its tone and style.
If you have been pondering whether it might be beneficial to go through a formal, large-scale transformation process, this article is for you. Before you jump in your car and drive hell-for-leather down that road, consider what it might do for you if you were to coach your employees in how to appreciate their colleagues just a little more.
Is gratitude the wellbeing holy grail?
Gratitude is often touted as the golden key to wellbeing, even though there is no way to assert a cause-and-effect relationship between gratitude and wellbeing. There is definitely an association, however.
When you coach others in the art of gratitude, you’ll do well to remember that it’s much more than saying thank you. Simply saying ’thanks’ can become an empty expression: People say it without really meaning it.
A true expression of gratitude is about the feeling as much as it is about the expression – even if you have to start by not feeling it.
This is why gratitude journalling is so helpful.
In a study published in Psychology Today, two psychologists asked the participants to write a few sentences each week on one of two topics: Gratitude or irritation.
Here’s what happened:
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Most of the studies of gratitude tell us the same thing.
An individual’s wellbeing is related to his or her attitude of gratitude.
At work, gratitude builds resilient and successful teams.
As David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in the USA wrote for the Harvard Business Review, it does this partially because it increases our willingness to work well with other people.
It also does this because it pushes us to think about what we might achieve in the future.
‘Gratitude, compassion, and pride make us more willing to cooperate with and invest in others. But because they accomplish this feat by increasing the value the mind places on future gains, they also nudge us to invest in our own futures. In so doing, they make both teams, and the individuals who comprise them, more successful and resilient.’
Further studies tell us that this other-focus is one of the beautiful things about gratitude. It turns out that being grateful makes us a better play-mate. We share more effectively, we give more of our time to people when they need it, and sometimes we’ll help others even when it comes at a cost to ourselves.
This is how acts of gratitude become acts of kindness
When you are looking to create a warm, inviting, kind and supportive workplace culture, this is actually where to begin. It makes us more tolerant of others, and it creates a sense of camaraderie and belonging. It’s one of the most powerful antitodes to negative emotions and depression.
Unlike just about every other indulgence you might be able to name – yes, even that one! – the more you do acts of gratitude, the better off you are. The best thing about it is that, when you are grateful for what you already have, right here, right now – and you can achieve this continuously – then the good feelings from the very first moment of gratitude make you feel happier for longer.
Don’t expect that everyone else will love it too
Not everybody is going to be on board with the idea of a grateful, appreciative, kind workplace.
You might find people on your team who consciously or subconsciously equate gratitude with guilt. You might also find that when people start expressing gratitude to other people, they’re all focused on themselves. Still others may just flat-out rebel: They won’t appreciate thanks, or gifts, or expressions of gratitude at all. Some may even dig themselves into a bunker, and use their positions to try to dismantle the emerging gratefulness round them.
Here’s how to deal with challenges along the way
The first thing to do is to recognise that the guilt association with gratitude is very real.
In many cases, it comes from childhood. Do you remember your mum telling you to be grateful, in a stark, nasty voice? Me too. But this isn’t the only place from which this guilt-gratitude interplay comes. You might have a teammate who simply feels overwhelmed by the kindness, and feels that they will never be able to repay it. Researchers have found there are many more situations in which this guilt-gratitude relationship exists.
If you are having open and honest conversations with your employees anyway (I hope you are), then you will be able to use your coaching sessions to help them move past it.
The second step is to help your employees recognise the opportunities given to them, and to make the most of those opportunities. This means that if a colleague expresses gratitude for the complaints that an employee has handled, for example, the best way to ‘pay that back’ is through success. Or, if your employer provides free courses for your team’s professional development, perhaps the payback is coming out of a course with a high score.
But how do you deal with employees who just hold on to their negative attitude with a firmer grip? The solution is to change the environment around them.
At ADSSI HomeLiving Australia, turning around the culture meant allowing those with intractably negative attitudes to leave, through their own self-selection. You can read that case study here.
Ultimately, when the culture changes, it’s not going to suit everyone. You need to be aware of that, and know that it’s ok if people opt out.
Remind people that gratitude is about the tiniest actions, the smallest changes.
Gratitude can be as simple as:
- buying someone a coffee
- giving someone a smile
- holding a door open for someone.
It’s evident in all of our small, considerate actions. It’s the difference between being happy about letting someone into the stream of traffic in peak hour, and doing it but feeling grumpy about it.
You’ll spot a grateful culture when you know that your team is doing this kind of thing for its members without expecting anything in return.
Encourage your team to lift others up, instead of themselves
You might be surprised to learn that if you pair gratitude with humbleness, the result is an integrated top management team. And in turn, this has a cascading effect on how your managers perceive the culture within your organisation.
If you’ve read Jim Collins’s work Good to Great you’ll already have an inkling about how this works. Collins writes about hedgehogs and foxes: The former are quiet, humble, shun the limelight; the others are always in the press. Hedgehogs are more evident in Collins’s study of great companies; foxes not so much.
Beyond Collins’s work, the humbleness of CEOs hasn’t been very well studied. In one of the first studies into this phenomenon, by Ou et al in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2014, the researchers found that a humble CEO changes the perceptions of middle managers about the culture.
‘We find CEO humility to be positively associated with empowering leadership behaviours … Findings confirm our hypotheses … [that] humble CEOs connect to top and middle managers through collective perceptions of empowerment at both levels.’ 
When you are humble, you’re not expecting any outcomes. It stops being about you, and becomes all about the other person.
This is the magic of gratitude in the workplace.
Show your employees how to focus on others
Often when we give appreciative feedback to other people, we somehow still end up focusing on ourselves. You can see it in comments like, ‘it makes me happy…’ or, ‘it let me relax…’.
It’s much more powerful to focus on the other person’s traits and outcomes. Saying things like, ‘You go out of your way…’ or, ‘you’re really good at…’ is a good place to start.
As Heidi Grant writes in her article, Stop making gratitude all about you, helpful motivations are often tied to our own self-worth.
We help because we want to be good people, to live up to our goals and values, and admittedly, to be admired … Helpers want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for – which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about yourself.
Activities that encourage workplace gratitude
Download this PDF to use in your coaching sessions, or for your managers to put on their walls.
- Create a team gratitude board. Set aside a whiteboard where everyone in the team can write a brief note about something great that happened that day, and something they’re looking forward to on the following day. Every Monday, wipe it clean and start again.
- Give everyone a gratitude journal and encourage them to write something in it every day or week.
- Thank someone verbally or mentally and tell them why; really feel the appreciation in your body. Doing this in your ‘inside voice’ is powerful if someone does something nice for you and runs off to a meeting before you can say anything.
- Teach your team to give feedback properly, using examples and describing exactly what it was that they found positive about the other person.
- Teach your team to pick their moments for giving feedback. If someone is an introvert, it’s not likely that they will appreciate being thanked publicly; and the reverse is true for extroverts. Teach them to thank their managers in private (so they aren’t at risk of being called out as a sycophant).
- Encourage your team never to assume that someone’s amazing outcomes are a result of natural skills. For example, if someone is amazing at customer service, they’re better off assuming the outcomes are a result of mindful listening, the time spend responding on an as-needed basis.
- Encourage your team to write gratitude letters to people, describing what they’ve done and why they’re appreciated. This is a particularly powerful activity for your managers!
- Teach your team about the importance of timing. Gratitude is best expressed as soon as possible after an event or achievement. This way both they (and the other person) can recall all of the details.
If you need more prompts, you can go and read 40 more ways to say thank you at work.
Creating warm, engaging, appreciative cultures starts with the small stuff. It begins with the little things that your employees do every single day. By including gratitude as a point of employee coaching, and in leading by example, you can create big shifts in a small period of time. All it takes is a few activities and the right encouragement, and you’ll find that your employees become kinder, happier, and more helpful.
Give your team the skills to express their gratitude, with The ORANGES Toolkit
The G in ORANGES stands for Gratitude. It’s the fifth of seven workshops delivered over a two-day program. The program empowers your team members to learn and use 40 mindset-improvement strategies, which have an incredible impact on workplace cultures. The program is so impactful that participants can put the strategies in place immediately.