“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude”
– Cynthia Ozick (b. 1928)
With Facebook and Google choosing Singapore as a base for their Asian headquarters, their unique corporate cultures have sparked interest and conversations—on employee engagement and positive well-being in the workplace. From flexible hours and bonuses to company-sponsored trips and “chill out” pods, organizations are investing considerable amounts of money to attract and retain talent. However, according to Gallup, they might be missing out on the most important factor in the equation which is, ironically, “free” appreciation. There is something about being taken for granted that covertly destroys a person’s confidence, depletes energy and diminishes motivation. When people feel valued, appreciated and generally “seen”, they will do anything to succeed.
According to research on appreciation in organizations, appreciated employees find more meaning at work, provide better quality, experience higher engagement and develop stronger relationships. In a Gallup conducted poll, only one in three employees agree that they have received recognition at work. Furthermore, nearly one-quarter of the employees surveyed have responded that the most memorable recognition came from higher-level management. The social and financial benefits of creating a culture of appreciation in organizations have indeed attracted some attention – Appreciation Walls have been erected and guidelines on “the right way to express appreciation” distributed. But as valuable and successful as these tools can be – once implemented correctly, that is – there is still a potential threat of backfire, especially if the implementation becomes a transparent façade of cynicism that most employees see through almost immediately. Despite evidence that attitude change often follows behavioural change (i.e. “fake it till you make it”), there is a fine line between being authentically appreciated and being cunningly pacified. Sadly, the effects of the two deliver divergent results that can evoke polar opposite emotions. The latter tends to cultivate resentment, anger and mistrust—certainly undesirable emotions in the workplace.
So how do we organically integrate appreciation in daily communication and actions?
To put it simply, it has to be built upon the foundations of gratitude. According to Dr Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the topic, there are three stages of gratitude: 1) Recognizing what we are grateful for, 2) Acknowledging it, and lastly, 3) Appreciating it. In other words, appreciation is the final component and the last stage in the gratitude process. Without the initial awareness and recognition, appreciation potentially appears inauthentic and insincere. The definitions of the two concepts, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, could possibly shed some light on the differences. It highlights how the feeling of gratitude precedes the act of appreciation – an internal state that expands, through appreciation, into the external world.
: the state of being grateful
: to value and admire highly
: to be fully aware
: to recognize with gratitude
Can the state of gratitude be developed?
In the first stage of developing gratitude, Dr. Robert Emmons advises that an individual has to recognize the blessings and gifts in their own life. In other words, we have to shift the focus from what is not working to what is working. Positive psychology researchers such as Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and Dr. Martin Seligman agree that gratitude is a positive emotion that can be cultivated and developed. Like other positive emotions, Fredrickson found that gratitude broadens people’s modes of thinking and builds their personal resources. Although at times it seems like we may have thousands of thoughts racing at the same time, the reality is that we can only hold one thought in any given moment – which can either be a positive or a negative one. The neuroplasticity of our mind allows us to redirect our habitual ways of thinking and shift the focus from what we lack in life to what we have in life.
How? One of the most known and powerful positive psychology intervention is Three Good Things. For a week, writing down three things that went well that day every evening. Of course, there are other engaging, evidence-based interventions that cultivate and develop gratitude such as Grateful Thoughts, Gratitude Visit, and Capturing Happiness. Although these target individuals, they can also be introduced in a workplace context: a team can choose to write three good things before the start of a meeting, lunch-time mindfulness workshops can be introduced and even nudges in the form of posters (“What are you grateful for today?”).
Does gratitude lead to prosocial behaviour? In the second stage, gratitude becomes other-directed—sparked by a realization of interdependence. A grateful individual will go beyond mindless tit-for-tat repayment behaviour and will not simply reciprocate the same act. Rather, the feeling of gratitude broadens-and-builds and provokes us to consider a wide range of prosocial acts as a way of “paying back”. By internally developing the feeling of gratitude, appreciating co-workers will become a natural expression. Gratitude plays a pivotal role in building and strengthening relationships because it highlights the other’s acts of kindness as important. In other words, when we experience gratitude we are more aware of other’s actions around us and more likely to recognize acts that we can express appreciation for. As Dr Emmons explained, “Gratitude implies humility- the recognition that we could not be who we are and where we are in life without the contribution of others”.
How do we express gratitude?
In the third stage, we express our appreciation of something or someone in the form of an action. In order for the relationship to transition across different stages, it is important that gratitude is explicitly expressed. A recent experiment by Grant and Gino illustrated that a simple “thank you” made a significant impact on the participants’ motivation to help a second time when asked, and persisted even longer to help without being asked. That said, expressions of appreciation are best received when specific and to the point. In other words, it’s much more effective to say “You have done an excellent marketing proposal last week” than simply saying “Great job”. There are many creative and fun appreciation activities that companies can integrate into their daily schedules; Better yet, place an Appreciation Day on your organization’s calendar!
To ensure the organic integration of gratitude and appreciation into a company, strategies for all three stages of gratitude have to be developed, accepted and practised by all employees – from top to bottom. Integrating and introducing a culture of gratitude and appreciation into an organization is not easy and it does not happen overnight; however, the return on investment for your financial, human, social and psychological capital is definitely worth the effort. A culture of gratitude and appreciation motivates and engages employees, strengthens and develops quality relationships and, most of all, nudges prosocial behaviour that ultimately goes beyond the companies’ walls.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.
Fredrickson, L. B. (2004) Gratitude Like Other Positive Emotions, Broadens and Builds. The Psychology of Gratitude. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946–955. doi:10.1037/a0017935
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.60.5.410
Positive Psychology Coach
Jana Dawson’s eclectic and multidisciplinary background—including experiences in theatre, positive psychology, teaching, life coaching, and meditation—has given her a unique perspective on and expertise in navigating organisational and individual situations to create a positive change.
With an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology, Jana has built programs to increase employee Psychological Capital and teach intercultural mindfulness, facilitated workshops on understanding and appreciating individual communication styles, and spearheaded employee training and development programs for corporations.