Want to Keep Employees? Lead with Gratitude
Research shows there is a staggering lack of gratitude in the work world. One recent study found “people are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else.”
At the same time, retention of quality employees is still a huge problem in our organizations. Why do most employees leave? According to research by the U.S. Department of Labor (based on third-party exit interviews), the number one reason people leave is they “don’t feel appreciated” by their manager for their contributions. One study found that frequent, genuine gratitude at work reduces employee turnover by up to 50%.
There are additional benefits to consistently leading with gratitude, including:
Stronger Relationships. When we take the time to express appreciation and gratitude to our team members, we are creating a more personal connection with them and helping to meet a heartfelt need. Prominent psychologist William James summarized years of research by saying, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”
Improved Employee Engagement, Motivation, and Focus. Gratitude is a powerful motivator. When we express appreciation for our team members’ efforts and achievements, it can increase their sense of purpose and job satisfaction. It also creates a sense of belonging and camaraderie within the team and builds a positive and caring culture. As a result, team members are more likely to be engaged, committed, loyal – and focused on the positives. Extensive research by Robert Emmons has found that people who feel grateful and appreciated are more likely to focus on personal and organizational growth and less likely to spend time engaged in “destructive impulses such as envy, resentment, greed and bitterness.”
Increased Productivity and Performance. When employees feel appreciated and valued, they are more likely to put in extra effort and go the extra mile to achieve their goals. Author Bridgette Hyacinth speaks to this when she wrote, “When employees have a boss who truly cares and appreciates them, they are willing to go the extra mile.” And a survey by Glassdoor found that 81% of people say they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation of their work (versus only 38% saying they work harder when their boss is demanding).
Enhanced Collaboration and Teamwork. Gratitude can break down barriers and foster a sense of community and collaboration. When we express appreciation for the contributions of our team members and business partners, it can create a sense of mutual respect and trust. It also encourages people to work together, share ideas, and support each other in achieving their goals.
Improved Health and Well-being. Gratitude has been shown to have a positive impact on the mental and physical health of both the givers and receivers of gratitude. I appreciate this quote from CEO Eric Schurenberg: “The best way to warm your heart is to warm the heart of somebody else.” Studies have shown that when we practice gratitude, we and the recipients are more likely to experience positive emotions, reduce stress and depression, sleep better, and improve overall well-being. When we cultivate a culture of gratitude, we can create a positive and supportive work environment that promotes the health and happiness of our team members (and ourselves).
Improved Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty. Leading with gratitude has benefits for us and our team members. But the benefits of gratitude are not limited to the relationship between us and our team members. It can also extend to the relationship between our teams and our customers. One study found that grateful managers lead teams that have an average of 20% higher customer satisfaction. We can directly express gratitude to our customers, which shows that we value them and are committed to providing excellent service. This in turn leads to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.
How Can We Lead with Gratitude?
I love this classic quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Here are a few practical ideas to help make people feel our gratitude toward them:
- Tap into the power of “thank you.” Recent research by Harvard and Wharton Universities found that thanking people more than doubles their likelihood to want to help us again. The research shows that thanking people helps them feel more “socially valued” – more connected to other people around them and their community as a whole.
- Verbally express gratitude. Expressing sincere gratitude verbally is powerful – it’s encouraging, motivating, and much appreciated. In a recent survey, “I appreciate you” was voted the most emotionally intelligent phrase at work. We can express gratitude for a person’s hard work, creativity, and accomplishments. One tip to make gratitude even more powerful is to be specific. “Thank you for your help” is good; even better is, “Thank you for the help you gave with XYZ task this morning. It turned out great and you shared great insights and really went above and beyond to help it turn out so well.”
- Communicate gratitude in writing. In addition to verbal expressions of gratitude, we can thank people via email, texts, social media channels, and other digital means. Digital is good; that being said, there is something powerful about expressing gratitude to someone via a handwritten note. Several years ago, I invited our CEO Peggy to visit the print and mail center and meet the team members and see firsthand the recent significant equipment and technology upgrades we had accomplished. The next day I received in intercompany mail a handwritten note from her expressing appreciation for the team and our accomplishments. A copy of that note was posted in our front desk area for years. The original? I have it framed and it is one of my cherished mementos from my career residing in my man room.
- Dole out meaningful gifts and rewards. Gifts and rewards can be a welcome way to express gratitude. We can consider bonuses, promotions, or other financial incentives. Providing opportunities for growth and development via training, mentoring, or working on special projects can be a much-appreciated way to show gratitude, especially with the Millennial and Generation Z employees. There is also a range of potential gifts that we can provide: certificates of appreciation, gift cards, company swag, or other tokens of appreciation. We can also consider acts of service, such as getting ice cream on a hot day and dishing up to our teams.
- Give time off and provide flexibility. Time off and flexibility are well-received ways to express gratitude. For hourly employees, time off with pay (such as a half day off on a Friday afternoon) always seems to be a hit. And giving salaried employees extra paid “comp time” so they can take time off without using PTO is appreciated. When possible, expressing gratitude by offering flexible work schedules, and hybrid and work-from-home options are not only appreciated but necessary to help us attract and retain the quality employees we need.
- Codify gratitude into our platforms. The concept here is to make it easy to express gratitude on an ongoing basis. One idea is to have a standing item on team meeting agendas for appreciation (shout-outs). We may also consider peer-to-peer recognition programs in addition to management recognition programs. I found it helpful to have a supply of gift cards and blank note cards for myself and other team leaders to have easy access to use and give out.
To summarize: Leading with gratitude can have a very positive impact on team morale, personal relationships, and overall performance. By taking the time to express our appreciation to our team members and other key business partners, we are creating a positive work environment that should lead to improved productivity and better outcomes. So, let’s work at intentionally incorporating gratitude into our management practices. We’ll feel better and so will the others we work with.
Related story: The Pygmalion Effect: We Get What We Expect
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. A former in-plant manager, he is also an award-winning university instructor and speaker, and is the president of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. His book, Your Team Can Soar! contains 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you—and your team—soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com. Wes can be contacted at email@example.com.