It is well-researched and documented that rewards and recognition are important drivers of employee engagement. And while I know this to be true, I find it hard to get excited about most company recognition programs. For example, many companies have monthly or quarterly award programs, where managers nominate employees for an award based on outstanding performance, a small committee selects a winner from the nominations they receive, and the winner is given a plaque or a certificate at the next company meeting – and if they’re lucky, perhaps a monetary award as well. I know it’s important to reward and recognize employees, but traditional approaches like this feel like a very small drop in a very big bucket. It’s a nice thought, but at the end of the day, how much engagement does it really drive to reward and recognize a few people, every once in a while?
What if there was a better way? What if companies could use rewards and recognition to make all employees feel more appreciated, more valued, more engaged, on a regular basis, all without spending a dime? There is, and they can…and it all starts with two words: Thank You.
Unleash the power of Thank You
Everyone knows that saying “thank you” is a good thing: it makes you feel happier, it makes others more willing to help you, and it fosters good relationships. Most people say thank you regularly to the people in their lives outside of work, but strangely, saying thank you at work is much less common. According to a survey by the John Templeton Foundation, people are less likely to express gratitude in the workplace than in any other area of their lives. For some reason, the typical mindset in the workplace is that an employee’s paycheck is his reward for doing good work, and additional rewards should only be given once in a while, for truly outstanding performance.
Yet this mindset makes no sense. Yes, employees expect to be paid for doing their job, but they want much more than just a paycheck. Employees want to know that their work is appreciated and valued, that they are making a meaningful difference. Saying thank you to someone is a powerful intrinsic motivator, it takes very little effort, and it doesn’t cost anything. Why would companies not want to reap the benefits of gratitude?
And those benefits have been well proven through research. In one set of experiments by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, their research showed that employees “experience stronger feelings of self-efficacy and social worth” as a result of being thanked for their efforts. It just makes sense: if people feel appreciated at work, they will feel better about themselves and more motivated to do their best.
In fact, gratitude benefits not only those being thanked; it benefits those doing the thanking to an even greater degree. For example, being grateful has been shown to reduce stress levels and health issues like neck and back pain. Other proven benefits of being grateful include reduced levels of depression and aggression, increased happiness, increased self-esteem and increased resilience to overcoming trauma.
Building a culture of gratitude
So, with so many benefits and negligible cost, what can companies do to build a culture of gratitude? Start by setting a good example at the top, and find creative ways to encourage employees to thank each other.
Leaders need to set the example. Like any cultural change, building a culture of gratitude needs to start with a company’s leaders. They need to demonstrate gratitude by saying thank you – frequently, consistently and sincerely. They shouldn’t just thank other leaders; in fact their thanks will likely have the most positive impact on more junior employees. It won’t happen overnight, but if all leaders say thank you on a regular basis, eventually employees will not only notice the change, they will start to emulate the example set by their leaders and say thank you to each other.
It is extremely important for leaders to be sincere when saying thank you. If they are only doing it out of a sense of obligation, employees will likely notice the hollowness of the gesture. Leaders should strive to be mindful of everyone’s contributions and sincerely thank people for making a difference. This can mean thanking employees for significant accomplishments like completing a project, but it can just as easily mean thanking employees for smaller contributions, like helping to plan a company social event, submitting a weekly report on time or brewing a new pot of coffee in the office kitchen. Even if something is a part someone’s job, it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be thanked for doing it.
If leaders aren’t used to saying thank you at work, it’s not realistic that they will suddenly start giving sincere thanks all the time. To help leaders adopt a practice of gratitude, encourage them to spend a few minutes every day, making a list of things they are grateful for, including things in the workplace. This will help them adopt an attitude of gratitude and give them ideas for when to say thank you at work. Over time, saying thank you at work will come more easily and naturally.
Encourage employees to thank each other. In addition to leaders setting a good examples by saying thank you, there are lots of creative ways that companies can remind and encourage employees to say thank you. Here are a few ideas:
- Have a “Thanks” award program where anyone can send a “Thanks” award to anyone else in the company. The note of thanks is sent to the employee and the manager is CC’ed. Optionally, “Thanks” award recipients can be given a small gift with their award, like a gift card or company logo merchandise (in that case, it probably makes sense to put a cap on the number of gifts an employee can receive each year, so people don’t abuse the program).
- Have a “Thanks” wall: a display wall in the office where people can put up post-it notes to say thank you to anyone in the company. This is a great visual reminder of the importance of gratitude in the workplace. Employees should be encouraged to use the post-it notes as a supplement to saying thank you to someone directly, not as a replacement for it.
- Make it a regular part of company meeting agendas. For example, weekly staff meetings can include a “Thanks” agenda item where leaders spend a few minutes thanking employees for something they did in the past week. They can also invite others in the meeting to contribute by saying thank you to a colleague.
Culture of gratitude vs. formal reward programs
Of course, formal reward and recognition programs are great, and I’m certainly not suggesting that companies replace them with a culture of gratitude. Formal rewards can be an important supplement to a culture of gratitude. In fact, having a culture of gratitude may make formal rewards and recognition even more valuable, because employees will know that they are not just a symbolic token but a sincere expression of appreciation.
What are your thoughts on gratitude in the workplace? Does your company have a culture of gratitude? What else can companies do to build a culture of gratitude?
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