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5 Ways to Make Gratitude Work in the Workplace

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

 “You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

That little nugget is by Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. By the time we can tie our shoes, we know the importance of saying “thank you.” It’s one of the first social courtesies we’re taught. Yet, somewhere between the kindergarten classroom and the workplace, the practice of gratitude often gets lost. It's not intentional; let’s face it… everyone is busy tasked with important work… analyzing numbers, improving processes, developing that next life-changing widget. Who has time for one more thing?

According to a John Templeton Foundation survey, people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anywhere else. The survey reports that the we tend to suppress gratitude at work, even when we genuinely appreciate those around us. Why? Some employees think that expressing gratitude makes them more vulnerable to being taken advantage of. The result is a vicious, culturally ingrained circle of ingratitude, which can have a significant impact on company culture.

If good manners aren’t enough, a simple and sincere gesture of gratitude is one of the easiest things you can do with the greatest impact on the organization. From a brain perspective, simply saying “thank you” is one of the best ways to keep people engaged and productive. Neuroscience explains what happens when someone acknowledges our efforts and thanks us for being a valued member of the community (e.g., dopamine, oxytocin, etc.). Scientific studies have shown that the neurotransmitters released during expressions of gratitude actually help the brain decrease stress and increase happiness and well-being. Now, we also know that gratitude has a huge impact on effort and productivity. 

A person who feels valued and appreciated will always strive to exceed expectations.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored how being thanked and the perception of being valued affected personal competence. In the first experiment, students were asked to provide feedback on a fictitious cover letter. Half of the subjects received confirmation of their feedback, while the other half received a message that expressed gratitude for completing the task. When the researchers measured the subjects’ sense of self worth afterward, only 25% of the group that just received confirmation felt higher self worth compared to 55% of the group that received an expression of gratitude. 

The second experiment was an extension of that same group of subjects. Each was asked to provide feedback on another fictitious cover letter. 66% of the students in the gratitude group agreed to provide feedback on the second letter compared to only 32% in the group who received no gratitude.

The “gratitude effect” was further explored in a field study to determine how it impacted productivity. This time, the subjects were two groups of fundraisers who all received a fixed salary regardless of the number of calls they made. The director visited one group in person to express his appreciation for the job that they did and the contributions they were making to the organization. The second group did not receive a visit from the director or any expressions of gratitude for their work. 

That simple demonstration of gratitude generated an increase in the number of calls by more than 50% over the previous week, while the calls of those who had not received thanks remained the same as the previous week. 

Furthermore, in a survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted on behalf of Glassdoor, 81% of employees reported that they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work, and 53% reported they would stay longer at their company if they felt more appreciated.

Oh... and one more thing... the gratitude effect is contagious. The practice of gratitude expands employee engagement to healthy productive company culture. Regardless of whether you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a dishwasher in the local diner, we can all use the power of gratitude to impact the world around us from the inside out.

Here are four simple strategies to empower your organization and yourself with gratitude: 

Be intentional. Decide that you will look for a reason to express gratitude every day.  It could be someone in the C-suite, the receptionist, or the cleaning person. Being in the market for gratitude makes it easier to see the good people around you.

Look for the overlooked. Thanking those who do thankless work will set the bar and establishe the tone that every contribution, no matter how small it may seem, has a positive ripple effect. We all want to know that we matter.

Write it down. A personal, handwritten note expressing your gratitude for something specific or for their role in the organization often means more to people than a verbal expression. You will be amazed at how long people keep these kinds of notes. And, as an added bonus, every time they look at that note, they’ll get a little boost of dopamine.


Avoid the transaction. A sincere thank you is just that… a thank you. Don’t dilute it with a quid pro quo offer that will actually cheapen the message. Sure, you could include a Starbucks gift card, but it will be much more meaningful if it is solely an expression of sincere gratitude - and just that.

Make it a part of your routine. End each week with a pen and a note card. Think about the positive people around you. Think about the people who will take your gratitude and extend it to their own corner of the world. Choose one and end your work week with a sincere note to that person. Surely, there is someone who is worth 10 minutes of your time each week, right?

Saying “thank you” is more than good manners; it is smart business and critical for employee engagement. It is perhaps the simplest, most impactful way to motivate people and inspire them to want to keep working at your company. In fact, many say that a personal “thank you” means more than other rewards, perks, or recognition programs. And, it costs


Showing gratitude has numerous physical and emotional benefits such as better sleep habits, lower stress, and greater overall wellbei. These effects directly impact work results and employee interaction. Perhaps the greatest psychological effect of gratitude is the positive emotions felt by both the giver and the receiver. Gratitude creates good feelings, better self-esteem, and greater optimism. All of these emotions creates an altrusitic “we’re in this together” mentality which makes the organization more successful. Plus, the dopamine effect will encourage a continuous cycle of recognition if everyone participates.

Beyond the business benefits, the practice of gratitude helps us remember that each of us is part of a community and our role in that community impacts others. Even if you’re not in a position of leadership, you can impact those around you in a big way by taking the lead on the gratitude effect. Extend that beyond the workplace, and the ripple effect is immense. Just imagine if you ended each week... each day... making someone else feel valued and appreciated; we all have that power. Just imagine if your expressions of appreciation inspired others to do the same. 

I happen to think that Robert Fulghum is a genius. Here is the rest of the opening excerpt: 

“Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. We never tell them. I don’t know why, but we don’t. And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.
You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

-Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten

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