Mark Bolino Ph.D.

The Thoughtful Manager

The Importance of Gratitude in Organizations

Expressions of gratitude make employees feel more valued and motivated.

Posted Nov 24, 2020

In recent years, psychological studies have shown that people who focus on the things in their lives for which they are thankful tend to experience more positive feelings and greater well-being. When people experience feelings of gratitude, they also feel more empathetic, less aggressive, and are more willing to engage in prosocial behavior. Furthermore, when we thank our benefactors, we positively reinforce their behavior, thereby creating a positive spiral that elicits more positive behavior from them.

An emerging stream of research suggests that these dynamics play out in similar ways in organizations. As such, showing gratitude and feeling grateful can have several benefits for employees and organizations. Most powerfully, expressions of gratitude lead employees to feel socially valued and to believe that their actions make a difference in others’ lives, which motivates them to be helpful, cooperative, and go the extra mile for the organization and those around them. These kinds of prosocial behaviors at work make organizations more adaptable and more attractive to current and prospective employees, thereby contributing to organizational effectiveness.

Given these benefits, what can managers and organizations do to elicit feelings of gratitude from their employees?

First, because studies show that focusing on blessings (rather than burdens) tends to increase feelings of gratitude, managers should do their best to make the benefits that their organization has to offer more salient to their employees. Regular reminders of why the organization is attractive and what makes working there so special are likely to make employees feel more grateful for their work situation. Such reminders have the added benefit of increasing employees’ feelings of embeddedness or attachment to the organization, which can reduce the likelihood of turnover.

Second, research has found that employees are especially grateful for organizations that care for their well-being and value their contributions. Likewise, employees tend to be more thankful when they work for supervisors who genuinely prioritize the interests of employees, contribute to their development, and treat employees politely and with dignity and respect. Thus, organizations and supervisors that seek to elicit feelings of gratitude must clearly convey their support for employees.

Third, managers should seek to develop an organizational culture that encourages expressions of gratitude in the workplace. Unfortunately, surveys commonly find that, although employees want to be thanked for their contributions, they often find that such recognition is lacking or does not feel genuine. For this reason, employers should celebrate and show genuine appreciation for employees’ outstanding contributions, accomplishments, and milestones. Likewise, whenever possible, organizations should find opportunities to connect employees with the beneficiaries of their work. Such contact is not only highly motivational, but also gives those who have benefited from employees’ work the opportunity to express their gratitude and further inspire those employees.

Clearly, there is an array of benefits associated with being thankful, thanking others, and being thanked. It is also increasingly clear that these benefits are not just limited to the personal realm but also extend to the organizational realm.

However, while grateful employees can contribute to organizational success, managers must take actions that make the organization deserving of their employees’ gratitude. In other words, managers and organizations will only be successful to the extent that their efforts at expressing and eliciting gratitude are seen as genuine rather than trivial or perfunctory; indeed, such attempts may backfire if employees perceive them as inauthentic.

For this reason, managers should be mindful of the importance of showing thanks and of doing so thoughtfully, sincerely, and consistently. Further, expressions of gratitude should be seen as an investment and a regular part of good management practice. Finally, in every organization, top leaders are often role models for other managers; therefore, it is especially important for them to regularly express thanks when warranted.

In light of the benefits outlined here, managers certainly should not wait for a holiday or other special occasion to express gratitude to their employees; instead, they should find ways to create a culture of gratitude in their organization to increase feelings of appreciation, personal well-being, and organizational effectiveness.