Cultivating gratitude in the workplace can be good for the bottom line

Ryan Fehr
Ryan Fehr

In a memorable scene from the acclaimed television series “Mad Men,” ace advertising copywriter Peggy Olson confronts her boss, creative director Donald Draper, about his disregard of her essential contribution to a household cleaner commercial that won him and the agency a Cleo Award.

“It’s your job,” explains an incredulous Draper, as the argument builds to a boil. “I give you money; you give me ideas.”

“And you never say thank you!” Olson fires back, seething with hurt and rage.

Then Draper replies, in cold blood: “That’s what the money is for!”

“This scene presents a pretty old-school view of organizations as strictly transactional,” says Ryan Fehr, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

But this insightful act of fiction does vividly dramatize the very real emotional toll that is wrought by a lack of gratitude in the workplace, the subject of new research by Fehr.

His study models the progression of on-the-job gratitude from episodic to persistent to collective. It also suggests how organizations can develop a culture of gratitude, which can result in a general sense of employee well-being and generate a happy litany of organizational virtues—from personal dedication to organizational citizenship to corporate social responsibility.

“By making gratitude a fundamental part of the employee experience,” Fehr says, “leaders and managers can leverage the benefits for employees and the organization as a whole.”

Thanks beget thanks

Plenty of academic research—not to mention common sense—supports the conclusion that gratitude sends out positive repercussions. Grateful people are happier and more satisfied, less aggressive and cynical. And they tend to pay forward the kindness shown them in a variety of pro-social behaviors.

But is episodic gratitude the end of the story?

“There’s this notion that gratitude is a fleeting emotion that you experience every once in a while, and that’s kind of it,” Fehr explains. “We believe that gratitude can play a stronger role in organizations. In particular, that multiple experiences of gratitude, over time, can lead to a persistent sense of gratitude that affects the way people think about their jobs and their experiences at work.”

To create a foundation for empirical research, he and co-authors Ashley Fulmer of University of Iowa and Foster doctoral students Eli Awtrey and Jared Miller constructed a theoretical model. This model suggests that episodic gratitude, experienced consistently by an employee in the workplace, leads to an enduring state of appreciation that creates an enveloping sense of well-being and protects against some of the stresses and anxieties of work.

And when a critical mass experiences this persistent sense of gratitude, those employees appreciate their jobs more, work more diligently, and collaborate better with co-workers. It can even tilt the entire organization toward more socially responsible behavior.

“Over time these patterns of helping behavior and gratitude can help build stronger relationships that are less exchange-oriented and more rooted in strong community,” Fehr says.

Don’t do like Don

Gratitude, like many softer emotions, has been traditionally ignored—if not scorned, by the likes of Mad Men’s Don Draper—in the competitive fires of the American workplace.

Fehr believes that organizations should give gratitude more serious consideration. And not only because it is progressive personnel management, but also because it could be good for the bottom line.

So how can an organization reap the benefits of genuine employee appreciation?

The study’s authors suggest that leaders can develop an organizational culture of gratitude through:

  • Appreciation programs – these work best as a recurring and ritualized acknowledgement of all employees.
  • Beneficiary contact – opportunities to see the positive impact of one’s work can foster a sense of meaning and appreciation.
  • Developmental feedback – by marking accomplishments and offering opportunities to grow professionally, managers can instill gratitude about the work itself.

Fehr warns that each of these gratitude-building programs can result in unintended consequences if not managed carefully. Appreciation programs that single out individuals can breed negative feelings of jealousy, anger and competition. Beneficiary contact can lead to employee burnout if it increases the perceived workload. And developmental feedback sessions can backfire in resentment if employees view them simply as another way for management to extract value.

If executed correctly, however, Fehr says that these efforts to foster gratitude can lead to a more positive and productive work environment.

“At the treadmill of work, we don’t often take a step back to see the positives. Appreciation programs, beneficiary contact and developmental feedback can help people see the great results of their work and develop appreciation for their colleagues and their jobs,” Fehr says. “But it has to be managed carefully and genuinely. If an organization really wants to move forward a culture of gratitude, it has to be all in.”

The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations” was published in the April issue of the journal Academy of Management Review.