Conflict, incivility, anger; these are all said to be issues that are rife within the modern workplace, but would they be so commonplace if we were all a little more grateful for our jobs? Gratitude is a positive emotion with a variety of outcomes, from greater life satisfaction to stronger relationships. And increasingly, as evidence of the power of positive perspectives for employees becomes clear, organisations are becoming more attuned to emotions like gratitude.
We consider whether it is possible for HR to cultivate and shape gratitude within the workplace.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is about thankfulness, appreciation and wonder for a tangible or intangible benefit from a benefactor.
It can manifest in personal gratitude, say towards the colleague who brings you a morning coffee to transpersonal wonder, when you might have gratitude to the universe generally for the straight run of four green traffic lights on the way to work.
The great thing about gratitude though is that it can greatly lessen the power of other, more negative emotions like anger, greed and particularly envy.
The benefits of gratitude
As a positive emotion, gratitude is said to be pretty unique due to the behaviours it promotes such as prosocial behaviour and altruism. The link between gratitude and positive social relationships is one that has been established for centuries, and continues to be proven.
A 2012 study by Bartlett and colleagues found that gratitude promotes social affiliation and socially-inclusive behaviours towards the benefactor, even when those actions come at personal costs. There are also strong links between gratitude and mental health.
Emmons & McCullough’s study utilising a daily gratitude diary showed improved mood and coping behaviours compared to those that wrote about neutral topics or hassles. A 2012 study by Lambert et al. also found that gratitude was related to fewer depressive symptoms.
The key difficulty with gratitude though is that we tend to become less grateful for benefits we receive all the time.
So, when your colleague starts bringing you that coffee every single morning, you can become inured to it and thus less grateful. This is consistent with Frijda’s law of habituation that suggests that our emotional reaction to benefits we consistently receive decreases over time, meaning that our gratitude for workplace benefits and our job itself will lessen over time too.
Another aspect of gratitude comes in perception. When we evaluate gratitude, we are assessing things like the sacrifice of the benefactor.
Increasingly, scholars are turning their attention to gratitude within organisations.
A 2017 article by Fehr, Fulmer, Awtrey and Miller suggests that a multilevel approach to gratitude in organisations is vital.
They categorise gratitude into three camps, episodic gratitude that might exist for a short time (where they suggest most research efforts have been focused), to a more stable persistent gratitude and finally to collective gratitude. Persistent gratitude is said to emerge in organisations when employees experience regular, and intense episodic gratitude.
And when persistent gratitude is achieved, we are more likely to notice it in others, appreciate it in others and recall and perceive events through a lens of gratitude.
For Fehr and colleagues, the ultimate objective for organisations is collective gratitude whereby an individual employee’s own experiences of persistent gratitude become the norm for everyone within an organisation. They also suggest that is possible for HR to move gratitude from episodic to persistent and finally collective.
Müceldili and colleagues assert that collective gratitude increases compassionate behaviours in employees like helping others, and drives team learning through social bonds. The general consensus here is that once the gratitude seed is planted, it spreads to every area of the organisation.
Fehr et al’s model of gratitude discusses a number of initiatives that may encourage gratitude including appreciation programmes. Such programmes, they say, are more likely to engender gratitude when they are about praising employees and teams for effort and perseverance rather than singling out individual employees.
Other initiatives include developmental feedback and beneficiary contact.
Beneficiary contact is deemed to develop gratitude as people can be grateful not only for what they receive but for the opportunity to help others. This scheme centres upon connecting those that help with those that have been helped, making the link between the employee’s actions and the benefits for others clear.
Developmental feedback is said to be of use because the development of new skills and workplace knowledge can be a source of gratitude for employees, yet it’s an area that organisations often fail to focus on.
Pitfalls of gratitude initiatives
When dealing with emotions such as gratitude, pitfalls undoubtedly exist.
A review of the literature by Fehr suggests that it all comes down to how employees perceive the initiatives, and if they are seen as a means of pressuring employees to do more, they can actually result in stress and burnout or exacerbate negative emotions like jealousy and envy.
Their suggestion is to create a trusting culture that will be receptive to gratitude initiatives and reduce cynicism.
About Paul Russell
Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, www.luxuryacademy.co.uk, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi and Vishakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors. Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles across Europe, United States, Middle East and Asia. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.