Gratitude is good.
That’s true in our personal lives and on the job. Recognizing the benefits we receive from others makes us happier and healthier, enhances trust and loyalty, and encourages people to connect and invest in the workplace. According to a recent survey by OfficeTeam, 66 percent of employees would leave their companies if they did not feel appreciated (up from 51 percent in 2012).
But there’s a problem: Gratitude is not thriving in the workplace. In fact, people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anywhere else, and managers tend to underestimate their employees’ need to feel appreciated.
It seems that the myths and misconceptions we have about gratitude hold even greater sway in our professional life, an environment where we’re more used to displaying power and gravitas than authenticity and emotion. Here are four common objections to gratitude that come up in the workplace, and how you can address them.
1. It’s forced
“Does gratitude work if someone tells me I have to practice it?”
When someone from human resources comes in and tells you that the company is instituting a new gratitude program, your first reaction may be to cringe. You may wonder why you need to be told to be grateful.
But a lot of research on gratitude involves exactly this kind of scenario: Participants in a study are told to practice gratitude for a certain amount of time, and they end up seeing benefits. Gratitude practices have been shown to have higher retention rates than typical therapies and other programs because they are effective and people actually enjoy doing them.
The simple fact is that gratitude feels good, so if people are encouraged to try it, they tend to like it. Even people resistant to the idea of gratitude could find benefits in it—which may be particularly true at work, where there is a lot of room for improvement.
Starting small and getting people used to the cultural shift can help. A bottom-up approach—encouraging employees to express gratitude when and how they see fit—can help create a culture of gratitude that feels less forced. From the top-down, employee recognition programs that give rewards or benefits throughout the year (not just around performance-review time) can help employees feel valued.
2. It’s fake
“Being told to be grateful will just lead to a bunch of fake platitudes.”
Even if we accept that gratitude is beneficial to our well-being, we might still worry that it’s “fake” if it doesn’t come spontaneously.
It’s true that for gratitude to do its best work, it should be authentic—and that means going beyond the platitudes to recognize what we truly value in others. One approach is to include thanks for who people are, not just what they do. Saying “thanks for the coffee” to your coworker who brings you a cup every day is good, but saying “Thanks for the coffee, you are always so thoughtful” is better.
We also have many options for how to express our thanks. Gratitude doesn’t have to be a long love letter to your employee every week. It doesn’t have to be a prescribed weekly meeting where people take turns saying “thanks” while someone sits in the hot seat. It can be gift cards as part of an employee recognition program or recognizing people’s accomplishments on projects at meetings. It can be making sure employee evaluations identify strengths as well as weaknesses.
Encouraging leaders and followers alike to take the time to say thanks when there is something to be thankful for will boost genuine acts of gratitude, no inauthenticity necessary.
3. It’s fluffy
“Gratitude is just one of those fluffy, new age-y terms that doesn’t belong in serious workplaces.”
It’s trendy to talk about “gratitude” as the solution for everything, and that can be a bit of a turnoff. Anyone championing gratitude should recognize that the research on gratitude in the workplace is fairly new; researchers have much more to learn about how and where it is most useful.
That said, gratitude does seem to tap into real human needs. At its core, gratitude is simply about feeling valued—and everyone wants to feel valued, recognized, and respected for the work that they do. In fact, retaining employees depends on this; people clearly believe gratitude is not just a fluffy nice-to-have, but an important part of their job.
Even when work is stressful or the going gets tough, gratitude can help you gain perspective, reframe your thinking, and get you through the hard times. Research suggests that it’s possible to be grateful amid difficult circumstances, and that doing so could help you cope.
It goes without saying that asking people to feel grateful for what they have isn’t the solution to a toxic or exploitative workplace culture—it would probably backfire in those circumstances anyway. Gratitude is meant for a generally healthy environment, where there are goods and gifts to be appreciated.
4. It undermines authority
“Expressing gratitude is a show of weakness at work.”
Creating a culture of gratitude across power lines is hard. In a hierarchical, competitive environment where people are jockeying for status and promotions, they may feel that thanking others undermines their authority because it reveals they didn’t achieve everything on their own. Managers may also worry about showing favoritism through grateful acts or making employees feel complacent.
But fear not: Research on grateful leaders actually suggests that leaders who display gratitude inspire more trust in their employees, who see them as having more benevolence and integrity. There is also research suggesting that, rather than encouraging complacency, gratitude motivates and energizes people and helps them to pursue their goals. In close relationships, when people feel appreciated for doing their “job” (chores and mundane tasks), they report enjoying that work more, wanting to do it more, and being even more satisfied with their relationships—and the same is likely to be true in the workplace.
What about gratitude in the opposite direction? That can also be tricky: When employees express gratitude, research suggests managers may question their motives, wondering whether the gratitude is genuine or just a way to earn favor. Companies can thwart this concern by creating more systematic ways of expressing gratitude, such as recognition programs, pre-printed thank you notes, and more. This way, gratitude can become an expected part of the culture, mitigating suspicions about ulterior motives.
Also, it may be most effective if employees and bosses are not expected to express gratitude in the same way. A boss can stand up at the beginning of a project meeting and recognize an employee who has been working extra hard, but another means of recognition (such as a mentorship award) will be more appropriate for an employee who wants to recognize their boss.
Whether you call it gratitude, appreciation, or employee recognition, the bottom line is that everyone ultimately wants to feel seen, heard, and valued. Remembering this fundamental truth will help us combat the gratitude crisis at work and foster happier, more engaged workforces.