Gratitude Works

It sometimes seems difficult to extract a thank-you from someone at work. Many employees we hear from complain of a dearth of appreciation for their efforts. They long for a pat on the back, even an appreciative smile or some indication they’ve done something that’s helped out. Unfortunately, thank-you’s happen infrequently.

Yet research indicates organizations that value gratitude benefit through increased performance. Customer retention increases, staff loyalty and job satisfaction is heightened and salespeople are more helpful to customers when they feel appreciated. Experiencing gratitude has been associated with enabling flexible and creative thinking. And it helps people cope with stress.

Gratitude means counting one’s blessings, appreciating the benefits other people provide and dwelling on the favourable aspects of one’s life. It has a positive impact on the bottom line and, most significantly, on psychological health.

Psychologists, Robert Emmons of the University of California and Michael McCullough, at the University of Miami found that adopting a grateful attitude contributes to overall well- being.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers randomly assigned 192 college students to three groups: 1. those who recorded things they were grateful for, 2. those who listed hassles they encountered, and 3. those who recorded events that merely had an impact.

The study noted people who were encouraged to focus on what they were thankful for every day experienced more comfortable emotions (excitement, enthusiasm, interest, joy and strength) than those who dwelt on life’s hassles (parking tickets, dirty dishes, rude drivers). Grateful people experienced fewer uncomfortable feelings such as hostility, anger, fear, nervousness and guilt.

The grateful ones tended to lend a hand more readily and offered emotional support to others. They were better rested and felt more connected to other people. They seemed to be more optimistic and were more satisfied with life as a whole.

So given these findings, why is it such a challenge to generate appreciative behaviour at work?

In our practice, we have discovered seven personality types who eschew expressions of gratitude:

1. Gratitude Misers: It’s their job.
People who have difficulty being grateful don’t know why they should thank someone for doing the job the individual was hired to do. They may say, “the paycheque is the thank-you” or “everyone knows I’m grateful for the work they do.” Either way, appreciation is not shared, and colleagues, superiors and staff never benefit from hearing “thank-you”.

2. Rugged Individuals: It makes me feel dependent.
Workers who have trouble appreciating others’ efforts are often afraid to rely on anyone. When people are grateful, they are acknowledging they need other people to be effective and successful. This can be frightening. Individualistic people whose sense of self-esteem relies on going it alone, may feel daunted in having to rely on others. That may translate into an apparent lack of gratitude.

3. Suspicious Types: They’ll take advantage of me.
These people truly believe that showing gratitude is a weakness and if they reveal a need, others will take advantage of them. Saying “thank you” or “I couldn’t have done it without you” makes them uneasy. Fears that colleagues may see their faults, limitations or needs and use them as artillery in the future, drive away appreciative behaviour. The idea that gratitude makes you appear “soft” and people will slack off if they know they are appreciated undermines gratefulness on the job.

4. Record Keepers: I’ll be indebted.
Some workers fear debt – interpersonal debt. Recognizing a favour, accepting an appreciative gesture or offering a thank you creates concerns about owing favours to others. Rather than acknowledge someone’s help, this type prefers to ignore, dismiss or downplay helpful behaviour. Secretly, the person may delight in getting something for nothing, making it all the more difficult to acknowledge or appreciate another’s efforts. While he or she keeps an accurate “favour ledger,” the person is loathe to reciprocate and may even feel resentful about the “obligation” to give back.

5. Pessimists: It’s a big hassle.
Staff people who dwell on the half-empty cup focus mainly on life’s little irritants — spilled coffee, the document that didn’t get couriered in time, the rise in gas prices – and usually ask, “What is there to be grateful for? Look at this mess!” They may be bewildered that there is anything worth appreciating, or irritated by the suggestion gratitude is good for them. Sometimes cynical, self-righteous or outraged, they may get overwhelmed by irritation, oppression and frustration. In this state, many may find it impossible to even notice their general good fortune or recognize how others’ contribute to their work life.

6. The Blinkered: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
These workers move through the day oblivious to how they are supported by others at work. Moments to express gratitude may arise but they cannot see them. Unaware of how people are contributing to their success, they seem to take staff for granted, and misunderstand other people’s need for acknowledgement and recognition. When told they seem ungrateful and that co-workers feel unappreciated by them, they seem genuinely surprised.

7. The Entitled: I’m Owed
These people believe they deserve good things due to their status or relative superiority. Saying thank-you for what they feel is simply due them seems beneath them. Workers who believe they are better than others in some way are reluctant to be appreciative, lest it appear they are on the same level as those who help them. There may be a belief that good things are coming their way due solely to their attributes and being fortunate has nothing to do with it. Resentment can be palpable amongst colleagues and direct reports when all the credit for a project is taken and acknowledgement, if any, is half-hearted.

Taking steps to add gratitude to one’s life may seem risky or unnecessary at first, but Emmons and McCullough discovered that counting five blessings everyday, even just for two weeks, made a significant difference. Give it a try. You may thank yourself for it.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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