gratitude at work

Harnessing The Power Of Gratitude At Work

By Baili Bigham

When is the last time you felt a true sense of gratitude? Maybe your friend did a selfless favor for you when you needed it most, or maybe a grand act of kindness from a stranger brightened your entire day. While these gestures may seem modest, the results are anything but…

These often fleeting, yet transformative moments can have profound impacts on our physical and emotional well-being, and can boost levels of happiness and positivity in spectacular ways. In fact, when UC Berkeley explored the feeling of gratitude, they referred to it as “‘social glue’ that fortifies relationships—between friends, family, and romantic partners—and serves as the backbone of human society.”

This powerful emotion is hardwired into our DNA, but in order to continually cultivate gratitude in your workplace, it must be practiced consistently. The holidays are a great time to reflect on the wonderful things in our lives and share our love and appreciation for one another, but it shouldn’t be the only time we do. Here is a deeper look at gratitude at work, and tips for developing a practice you can use throughout the year. 

Understanding the different kinds of gratitude

Before you can effectively put the power of gratitude to work for your company, you need to understand the way psychologists analyze this emotion. For several decades now, researchers have differentiated between “state gratitude” and “trait gratitude.” 

State gratitude is the temporary emotion you feel after someone does you a favor or gives you a gift. Trait gratitude, by contrast, is an ongoing way of viewing the world. It is defined as “an orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in life.” It’s trait gratitude that yields long-lasting benefits, but the good news is that all of our grateful reactions are linked. 

You can increase someone’s long-term positivity by giving them repeated experiences of being appreciated. The best approach to building a strong company culture is to give plenty of individual recognition, while also encouraging your staff to view life through a grateful lens. 

The many benefits of gratitude

In their 2018 white paper, “The Science of Gratitude,” UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center lists the personal changes that result from approaching life with a prevailing sense of gratitude. These include improvements in physical as well as mental health such as:

• people sleep better and are less fatigued during the day
• they experience lower levels of cellular inflammation
• greater resiliency
• less burnout during stressful periods

While occasional trauma is impossible for human beings to avoid, when people internalize a sense of gratitude they bounce back more readily from difficult life events. Gratefulness is also correlated with less depression, but these benefits don’t just help the individual. It also benefits organizations.

A company is only as healthy as its people; if your employees’ overall well-being improves, you’ll see an uptick in organizational performance. Some of the company-wide benefits of a grateful workforce include a deepened sense of belonging and strengthened work relationships. They also feel less stress, which allows them the room to think more creatively and innovatively.

Each of these benefits leads to a more positive workplace, greater job satisfaction, and less employee turnover.

Steps to nurture gratitude at work

As a manager, you have considerable power to awaken and nurture all aspects of gratitude (the immediate, temporary kind as well as the long-term worldview kind) among your staff. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center notes that “gratitude interventions do appear to significantly increase happiness, well-being, and positive mood.” 

They cite research verifying that “scientifically designed practices to increase gratitude can also improve people’s health and encourage them to adopt healthier habits.”  Here are a few proven interventions that you can introduce in your organization:

1. Encourage everyone to pay attention

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence states “There is always something to be grateful for. Even bad experiences can teach us valuable lessons. And gratitude is not just a feeling outside your control that arrives willy-nilly. It’s more like a radio channel: you can choose at any time to tune in.” As you internalize the trait of gratitude, you’ll naturally be on the lookout for those things in life which can be viewed as gifts. In 15Five’s Best-Self Management podcast, we also discuss how to notice and change our default bias toward negativity.

2. Involve your whole self

It’s important to remember that gratitude is not simply an artifact of our minds. The fact that it yields so many physical benefits (such as improved cardiac health, better sleep, and lower levels of cellular inflammation) reminds us that we experience gratitude with our whole bodies. 

Are you grateful for the way the sunshine lit up a child’s hair? Or the fragrance of rain after a long dry spell? The texture and taste of a snack someone shared with you? Health is the word for how our whole selves interact with all the layers of our environments.

3. Keep gratitude journals

This practice turns out to be essential, according to psychologists. It’s not enough to just feel grateful; writing it down creates a framework and context for viewing your experiences in a positive light. It builds that health-giving habit of approaching life gratefully. Expert advice from Positive Psychology suggests that journaling once or twice a week is more effective than doing it daily. This makes sense since the action could become stale and routine if it were a mandatory part of everyone’s day.

4. Communicate your gratitude to others

Gratitude is a social emotion as well as an introspective one. Many of its benefits aren’t unlocked until one person expresses gratefulness to another. One reason for this is that our brains release dopamine every time we express or receive gratitude. Each individual experience of receiving thanks or appreciation is a brief moment of emotion that will contribute to a sustained sense of positivity. 

Gratitude at work needs to be expressed in a 360-degree sphere. Whether someone is your supervisor, employee, colleague or customer, you will improve your relationship with them when you let them know they’re appreciated. 15Five’s High Five feature allows people to share their gratitude publicly, spreading a broad spectrum of good feeling, and making the person being thanked feel especially honored by the notice. 

5. Don’t restrict gratitude to the holiday season

Positive company culture doesn’t arise from sporadic actions. It has to become second nature, an integral part of your organizational practice on a year-round basis. 

At 15Five, we don’t just practice gratitude at work during the holidays. We start every week with “Gratitude Mondays.” During the first five minutes of our all-hands meeting, our Chief Culture Officer shares a specific topic or theme, and we all write responses in our gratitude Slack channel. One recent prompt was, “Share why you are particularly grateful for the struggles you’ve gone through,  and tell how they’ve helped you get where you are today.” These little exercises often prompt fruitful discussions and set up a good forward momentum for the entire week.

You can build a positive company culture by taking steps to increase and leverage all aspects of gratitude in your employees. In the very best workplaces, a job brings in much more than a paycheck; it becomes a health-giving force, aiding the worker to live up to their highest potential and become their best self.

Feelings of gratefulness energize individuals and build stronger teams. Your company can harness this power as a major driver of improved productivity, not just during the winter holidays, but all through the year. 

Baili Bigham is the Content Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, OKR tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360° reviews. When Baili isn’t writing, you can find her binge-reading a new book or strategizing ways to pet every dog in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @bgbigz.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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