November 15, 2021

Build a culture of gratitude at work

I bet you’re reading a lot about gratitude right now. And that’s a very good thing. We talk about it most often around Thanksgiving, but I think gratitude has a place in our lives every day of the year.

I also think gratitude has an important role in the workplace, perhaps now more than ever.

That’s because the Great Resignation is shining a light on the ways in which work hasn’t always worked so well for employees. And although there are cultural forces at play, some of this is on leaders who failed to fully understand and deliver what people need from work.

Fundamentally, most people must work to pay the bills. But the increasing acknowledgement that work needs to enable our well-being — rather than wreck it — means leaders must ensure their workplaces offer more than money and a path to advancement.

Satisfaction and fulfillment, connection and friendship, purpose and growth. It takes commitment to foster a professional culture that supports these things. But I know an easy place you can start: Gratitude.

The gift of gratitude

Gratitude is associated with all kinds of benefits. As you share your gratitude with others, you will reap many of the rewards yourself. The habit and practice of gratitude floods your body with feel-good hormones that can actually rein in your response to stress and reorient your world view in a more positive direction.

Gratitude is a wonderful gift to give to yourself. It’s also a beautiful gift to give to others. Recipients of gratitude experience many of the same benefits, as gratitude triggers reward pathways, enhances learning and mitigates stress. To some people it can feel like being handed a pile of cash.

While compliments take only a moment to share, they likely carry more meaning than you think to the recipient. That may help explain why we don’t see enough of them in the workplace.

Gratitude in the workplace

It’s no surprise that people like being complimented on their work. Compensation only goes so far, and doing a good job feels good. Hearing someone else – especially someone we respect – acknowledge our contribution is a wonderful form of affirmation.

And if you’ve read The 5 Love Languages, or its companion The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, you know that for many people, affirmation is more than just a welcome reminder we are doing well. It also serves as the glue that binds a relationship and reinforces commitment. This matters at work just as it does in personal relationships. You can demonstrate your commitment to supporting the professionals around you with gratitude.

Sharing gratitude at work

As you think about demonstrations of gratitude in the workplace, know that there aren’t too many wrong ways to do this. “Thank you for doing all the things I don’t want to” and other backhanded comments come to mind as one style to avoid, but if your intent is good, you’ll do just fine.

However, if demonstrating gratitude at work is new territory for you, you might benefit from some tips. Here are a few to get you started:

Acknowledge what people give (no matter what they get)

I recommend spending some time thinking about what people give to your team. Sure, they receive financial compensation, but they give back other equally or more important forms of currency – time and energy, for example. Recognize what a gift this is even in ordinary times and call it out.

Shout it to the world

A face-to-face compliment is meaningful. However, nothing multiplies your effort like delivering your praise in public. You can consider the best way to do this in the context of your workplace, but team meetings, group communications like emails, even social media can be great options. In fact, the way you give and receive credit for work will help define you as a leader in the eyes of those around you. Giving credit to others frequently (and most importantly never taking credit for other’s work yourself!) will enhance your reputation as a generous, caring leader people will want to follow.

Make it personal

Although they are quieter than a share-worthy social post, I am also big fan of personal, handwritten notes. The fact that people don’t do this very often is not a bad thing – it means your note will be especially touching. In addition, everyone knows you’re busy. Making time to choose a card, write something heartfelt, and deliver it to someone else’s desk (or their home mailbox if your team is remote) sends a clear message that you mean what you say. And there’s no reason you can’t pair a note with more public praise.

Make it specific

Compliments are lovely, but hearing “you did a great job” is not nearly as meaningful as “your report was extraordinarily researched, and your polished and authoritative presentation of your work reinforced the reputation we have all been working so hard to build.” The great thing about affirmation is it underscores and incentivizes contributions that have value. When you are clear about what your team is doing well – and especially the impact it has for them, you and the business – the great contributions will keep coming.

Give back

One especially meaningful way to share gratitude and affirmation for a job well done involves sharing something of value in return. And I don’t mean money — although money is not necessarily a bad choice if you have the budget. Consider an employee who has put a lot of time in on a big project. What if as part of your thank-you, you encouraged her to take some time for herself? Offer to cover her afternoon meetings yourself so she can head home, or consider a similar gesture that acknowledges the time she has put in – and pays a little of it back.

Make space for grace

This is a little less about overt gratitude, but it is important for leaders to remember we can’t all be amazing all the time. One way you can support and show gratitude for the contributions of your best teammates is by occasionally looking the other way and letting small mistakes slide. I am not talking about habitual problems or errors with serious consequences involving safety or reputation. Some issues cannot be ignored. But some truly don’t matter in the long run – and viewing small mistakes in this context is a kindness we can all appreciate.

Give something of yourself

Seeing and acknowledging someone’s skill and contribution is nice. Seeing it and investing time as a mentor to help it grow is something else altogether – and it can also be a form of gratitude, one the recipient will never forget. It may also have the added benefit of supporting their satisfaction with work.

Brainstorm your own list

There are as many ways to show gratitude as there are workplaces in which to demonstrate it. Continue exploring if you like, and please add your favorites in the comments.

Building a culture of gratitude and affirmation at work

Change takes time, and if you’re like many leaders now who are mired in worry over hiring amid the Great Resignation, you may feel time is one thing you don’t have. But the beauty of gratitude and affirmation lies in the fact that it’s not hard to do, and you can start bringing more humanity to your workplace right now. At a time when people feel undervalued and unappreciated, your kind, thoughtful note could make a world of difference to someone on your team – and you can make it happen today.

Perhaps the best thing about gratitude is it spreads – fast. As you feel a rush of antistress hormones when you compliment someone, they experience a similar response, and you both walk away from the interaction primed to spread the love. Imagine how rapidly we could reshape our professional environment if a few more of us embraced the power of gratitude in the workplace. We might even be able to turn the Great Resignation into the Great Retention.

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