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On Bringing Gratitude to Work

November 08, 2017 | Filed in: Your Brain

“Gratitude” is a word that I hear most often in the context of Thanksgiving. Going around a table filled with family and/or friends and saying what we are thankful for is a ritual I look forward to every year. Even if initially there’s some too-cool-for-school resistance to the exercise, I’ve found that it puts everyone in a better mood, and there’s a kind of glow of well-being that comes over the whole room for the rest of the night.

It’s no secret why that is. There is a huge body of research about the benefits of gratitude, and how bringing a daily practice of thankfulness into your life can change it for the better. But the focus is not often on our working lives: often, the advice is to cultivate a sense of gratitude for relationships, experiences, and other things that exist outside of the scope of our jobs.

This makes sense, because work is one of the hardest places to practice gratitude. It’s the place where we spend most of our waking hours, and it’s one of the easiest environments in which to feel frustrated or unappreciated. Because of that, though, it’s an area of life where I think we could most benefit from practicing gratitude. Not in the “I’m grateful that I have a job” sense—although there’s nothing wrong with that—but in a deeper and more meaningful way.

So I decided to dive into the research.

As it turns out, scientists have extensively reported on the positive effects of gratitude in the workplace, finding that it is linked “to more positive emotions, less stress and fewer health complaints, a greater sense that we can achieve our goals, fewer sick days, and higher satisfaction with our jobs and our co-workers.”

This all sounds great, but how do we actually make our workplaces more grateful? To learn more, I spoke with Summer Allen, a research and writing fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

“A researcher named Ryan Fehr wrote a paper called The Grateful Workplace, and in it, he proposes the idea that there are three levels of gratitude,” Allen says. “First is episodic gratitude: the feeling of appreciation that an individual employee might feel in response to an experience that they benefit from. The next level is persistent gratitude, defined as the stable tendency to feel grateful within a particular context—which could apply to many areas, including the workplace.”

“If you’ve cultivated a lot of episodic gratitude within an individual employee,” she says, “then that will lead them to feel persistent gratitude at work. And the idea is that if you can cultivate gratitude in employees and have them feel it over a prolonged period of time, then you grow what is called collective gratitude, which creates a culture of gratitude in the workplace.”

This is easier said than done. Practicing gratitude gets bumped down the priority list when a deadline looms, or if we feel frustrated by co-workers, or if we don’t get the promotions or raises we believe we deserve. And the research shows that it takes concerted effort at all levels of an organization to create an environment in which gratitude is practiced often and includes every employee.

Allen pointed me toward a case study: At Southwest Airlines, the company takes great care to show employees that they are “paying attention to special events in their personal lives—from kids’ graduations, to marriages, to family illnesses” through small gifts and tokens, like flowers or a card. This company culture of thoughtfulness and caring created an environment of consistent gratitude, and landed them on Forbes’ list of the best companies to work for in 2017.

Peter Bonnano is another expert who trains organizations on mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and leads trainings that likely follow the pattern of the Thanksgiving dinner table—some skepticism, followed by enthusiasm. He starts with a 10-minute meditation on gratitude, which ends with participants being encouraged to get in touch with someone to whom they feel grateful.

He says of the exercise in Greater Good Magazine, “It’s a total heart-opener. A lot of people have said that it’s helped them to open up a conversation that they have needed to have with a business partner or a spouse, something they’ve been holding in, something they’ve been putting off.”

The good news is that we don’t necessarily have to hire fancy consultants to bring more gratitude into our work lives. But the Greater Good Science Center does recommend that anyone looking to foster gratitude in their workplace follow these key steps:

1. Make it about the whole person: Gratitude is not about recognizing performance or results. It’s about appreciating people for who they are—as whole people, not just cogs in an organization. “I’m grateful that you hit your revenue targets in Q3” isn’t going to cut it.
2. Don’t make it “one size fits all”: Some people hate being complimented in public. Others love it. An effective gratitude program will recognize that people prefer to receive it in different ways.
3. Have it come from the top down: This won’t succeed if there isn’t buy-in from the very top. Any gratitude practice should start with leaders’ full support and participation.
4. Make it part of the culture: Consistency is key. A gratitude wall that disappears after a couple of weeks is just going to bum everyone out.

Allen has more concrete examples: “One method for cultivating gratitude at work is appreciation programs—things like retirement parties, celebrations of a new product launch, or a meeting facilitator who expresses appreciation for each person there, describing their specific strengths. Another example could be a website or a ‘gratitude wall’ where coworkers can show public appreciation for their colleagues, or a program where you write thank you notes to your coworkers or your employees.”

Hopefully this year, you might be moved to bring your gratitude practice beyond the Thanksgiving table or even a gratitude journal—and start to actively practice it at work. I’ll start: I’m grateful to MM.LaFleur for creating The M Dash, an environment where women come together to share the challenges, triumphs and humor that are all part of the long arc of a career and a life, and whose thoughtfulness and intelligence inspires us every day. And I’m grateful to you for reading.

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Sarah Devlin is the former Director of Content for MM.LaFleur. She's worn many different hats over the course of her career — from writer and web editor, to social media editor and marketing strategist — but her hardest-won title is Kardashian Historian. Read more of Sarah's posts.

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