How to express gratitude and motivate your employees

Saying ‘thank you’ is essential for staff engagement, but here are specific ways for you to boost your colleagues’ self-esteem and inspire them to greater achievement. You’re welcome.

Have you thanked your employees lately?

In her new book “The Gratitude Diaries, Janice Kaplan cites a London School of Economics paper analyzing more than 50 studies of what motivates people to work.

Researchers found that we give our best effort when:

  • The work gets us interested and excited
  • We feel the work is providing meaning and purpose
  • Others appreciate what we’re doing

Despite that, workplaces rank shockingly low among places where people are likely to express gratitude.

In a 2013 John Templeton survey of more than 2,000 full-time employees, 80 percent agreed that receiving gratitude for their work makes them work harder, but only 10 percent admitted to actually expressing gratitude to colleagues every day. More than 90 percent of employees felt that bosses who showed gratitude were more successful overall.

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Yes, gratitude is a powerful motivator, but at some organizations the higher-ups haven’t figured out how to make it part of their culture.

Practice makes perfect

Giving and receiving gratitude have been shown to improve our mental and physical health, enhance our empathy and reduce our aggression levels, as well as improve our self-esteem. Beyond its therapeutic effects, gratitude motivates high performance, puts meaning into our work and is just the decent thing to do—an essential element for creating a positive work culture and boosting an organization’s success.

That doesn’t mean those running the organizations that are falling behind are ungrateful; it’s more likely they’re just out of practice.

There is an art to gratitude, and if you’re doing it wrong, employees will notice. Terry Wong of The Wall Street Journal put together an excellent sidebar rundown of the five most common missteps in offering workplace gratitude. Don’t be like these bosses:

  • The automatic pilotShows gratitude only when making the rounds during a regular time slot, usually once a week. Gratitude is much more effective when it’s offered as meaningful individual gestures, not all lumped into one task.
  • The overcompensatorNever thanks anyone, but then suddenly can’t stop thanking everyone for everything. Consistency and reliability are the keys to building trust. Without them, gratitude cannot take hold in your culture.
  • The double-talkerTorpedoes every “thank you” with a “but”: “Thanks for doing a great job on that report, but there were a few typos.” Thanks for the compliment, but when you qualify your compliments they cease to be beneficial.
  • The latecomerWaits a week before acknowledging top performance. Strike while the iron is hot so people can connect the praise to the work right away, giving it real meaning.
  • The MachiavellianOffers praise only to get something in return, i.e. working late. If you’re doing this, stop immediately and re-examine your life choices.

Take it from the top

Managers bear the bulk of the responsibility for spreading gratitude in the workplace, but not all of it. Organizations as a whole must have a written strategy to guide recognition and gratitude efforts, and supervisors have to take it as seriously as they would their bottom line.

Harvey Deutschendorf of the Fast Company blog made up a great list of five simple tips to support a culture of gratitude in your workplace:

  1. It must be modeled at the top. Everything starts with leadership, and employees take their social cues from superiors in the office. Your top execs and managers have to be living the gratitude culture every day for anything to happen.
  2. Make it specific and authentic. It takes time and effort to notice specific things about the person receiving praise, Deutschendorf asserts, and if you’re giving praise only in group settings or treating it as a chore, you’re not connecting with your employees. Making praise specific and authentic is essential.
  3. Ensure there are no ulterior motives. Praise and gratitude should not be used as tools of manipulation, capitulation or coercion. Deutschendorf relates a story about a manager who would offer recognition only in front of his own boss, so many employees felt used rather than thanked. Recognizing an employee’s accomplishment should be an act of selflessness, and employees quickly sniff out phoniness and blatant self-interest.
  4. Tailor it to the individual. Avoid generic praise at all costs. Managers must focus on each employee’s accomplishments, communicating gratitude in specific and meaningful ways.
  5. Create opportunities to think about and share gratitude. Give your employees an easy process to recognize one another in the workplace. Start your monthly meetings by telling everyone what makes you feel grateful. Highlight employee achievements and praise in the company newsletter. If you want gratitude to be an important theme in your workplace, create the discussions and opportunities to make it so.

Double the payoff

In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, professional advisors were asked to give notes to students on their cover letters for a job application. After receiving the notes, the students then asked the professionals for help with another letter.

Around 32 percent of them agreed to help the second time, but when students added a single line to their note about their first feedback—”Thank you so much! I am really grateful!”—a whopping 66 percent of the advisors agreed to help. Even a small expression of gratitude, in the form of a written note, doubled the response.

Done right, gratitude is powerful and costs next to nothing, though the potential rewards are huge.

True value

Sometimes gratitude is the only thing keeping your employees engaged with their work. People have an intrinsic need to be recognized, and when that need goes unfulfilled it can make us feel as though we don’t exist. When that happens, engagement and motivation are off the table.

To get the true value out of your employees, show them that they are truly valued.

A version of this article first appeared on the Michael C. Fina blog.

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