Gratitude is an increasingly popular subcategory of positive psychology, which was founded by Martin Seligman in 1998. By now, we know gratitude is good. But why? You may also be wondering:

  • What are the benefits of showing gratitude as an individual versus an organization?
  • How can leaders of organizations or teams reap the benefits of gratitude?
  • What gets in the way of gratitude, and how can we overcome those obstacles?

The Personal Benefits of Gratitude

Recent research has found that expressing gratitude can improve:

  • physical health
  • sleep cycle
  • longevity
  • life satisfaction and optimism
  • energy
  • relationships

There are many ways to care for your well-being using gratitude: writing a letter to someone who made your life better in a big or small way (bonus points if you can surprise someone who wouldn’t expect it), doing a gratitude-focused meditation to start your day, being extra intentional when thanking cashiers and interacting with other strangers.

Gratitude in Leadership

The personal benefits of gratitude certainly apply to the workplace, and these benefits span across individuals, teams, and organizations. For example, when a leader thanks an employee for their contributions in a meeting, the positive reinforcement motivates the employee to continue contributing great ideas.

One of the best parts of gratitude is its ability to inspire us to pay it forward. Think of a time when a supervisor thanked you, and you could tell they really meant it. How did it make you feel? It’s likely that the warm feeling of appreciation you experienced made you want to spread it around. Especially in a team setting, gratitude can spread rapidly, motivating others to continue doing good work and boosting morale in the process.

While most gratitude research focuses on the individual, extensive research has also been performed on the organizational benefits of gratitude. For example, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study on the effects on university fundraisers of receiving gratitude. One group of fundraisers received a message of gratitude from their manager before their shift, while another group received no message. The group that received the message of gratitude made 50% more calls, suggesting that being on the receiving end of gratitude likely increases our productivity (Grant & Gino, 2010).

Other organizational benefits of gratitude, according to research, include:

  • improved productivity
  • enhanced performance
  • increased profitability
  • improved operational efficiencies

How do you measure up?

Four dimensions can be examined to indicate a tendency to be grateful. For each dimension, consider asking yourself the question that follows.

  1. Intensity: Grateful people tend to respond to a positive event with more intensity than less appreciative people.Ask yourself: How intensely do I show my gratitude?
  2. Frequency: Over time, individuals who express gratitude more frequently have a higher overall tendency toward gratitude.Ask yourself: How frequently do I express gratitude?
  3. Range: People with a high tendency toward gratitude express gratitude toward a broader span of events, such as family, job, health, even life itself.Ask yourself: For how many circumstances in my life do I feel grateful?
  4. Volume: Grateful people tend to be grateful toward a larger number of people for a single positive outcome or life circumstance, which is referred to as gratitude density.Ask yourself: Toward how many different people do I feel grateful for a specific positive circumstance in my life?

Did the exercise reveal any areas in need of improvement? As a leader, could you afford to work on your intensity, frequency, range, or volume? If you’re realizing that you struggle with feeling or expressing gratitude, know that you’re not alone.

Barriers to Being Grateful

Why can it be so hard to feel and/or express gratitude? According to Charles D. Kerns, Ph.D., MBA, professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management, these five areas of functioning can become barriers to expressing gratitude:

  1. Sense of entitlement
  2. Preoccupation with materialism
  3. Lack of self-reflection
  4. Lack of prior deprivation
  5. Self-centeredness

Naturally, none of us wants to believe we’re ungrateful. But depending on our life experiences, we may have “gratitude gaps” depending on how we were raised or taught. While we cannot change those past influences, we can identify where barriers to gratitude exist in our present and take actionable steps toward addressing them.

Actionable Items to Become a Gratitude Pro in Leadership

One of the many great things about gratitude is that there’s never a wrong time to express it.

If you want to be a master of gratitude, consider these tips supported by

  • Integrate gratitude into your schedule. Research has found that performing rituals with your team may help teams bond and add meaning to their work. Consider implementing a designated time for gratitude in team meetings. For example, during the last five minutes of each meeting, invite each person to quickly share something or someone they are grateful for relating to the team. While it may feel forced at first, the positivity it sparks could become contagious.
  • Boost the recognition signal. It’s easy for recognition to stop at the team level, so consider making a cross-departmental or company-wide platform for sharing good feedback. Maybe you could even propose a designated Slack channel just for shouting out good work.
  • Leave a handwritten thank you note. Leading researchers in positive psychology Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough directed participants to write a few sentences weekly on certain topics. At ten weeks, the researchers found that the participants who wrote about gratitude were more hopeful about the future, had less medical appointments, and exercised more.
  • Like with any feedback, be specific. When we receive specific feedback, we are more likely to see it as genuine and thoughtful. It also sticks in our memory more, making us more likely to internalize it and continue performing the actions we’ve received appreciation for.
  • Consider tangible tokens of gratitude. There is nothing wrong with providing your team with refreshments, gift cards, experiences, etc. to show your appreciation. While these tangibles cannot replace individualized, thoughtful messages of gratitude, they boost morale and can lead to positive shared experiences among your team.

Worried that sending an out-of-the-blue message of gratitude to a colleague would appear awkward or inappropriate? Recall how you felt the last time somebody showed their appreciation for you. It rarely puts us off. On the contrary, most of us welcome feeling appreciated, no matter the reason or time.

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