Gratitude–You’re Doing It Wrong

July 12, 2016 Sarah Payne

Unhappy Face“Gratitude is the key to happiness in the workplace and everywhere else,” WorkHuman speaker and UC Davis professor Robert Emmons told us in an interview last year.

Indeed, the personal benefits of cultivating more gratitude are well documented—including improved sleep, self-esteem, psychological and physical health, and mental strength. And according to Emmons, gratitude in the workplace acts as a “vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” He explains:

In many organizations the workplace culture is toxic. Symptoms of this are exploitation, complaint, entitlement, gossip, and negativity. Grateful living is a remedy against all three of these symptoms. Gratitude produces higher levels of positive emotions that are beneficial in the workplace such as joy, enthusiasm, and optimism and the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.

Recent research from the WorkHuman Research Institute at Globoforce validates this claim. When workers agree, “I feel grateful for my work and colleagues,” they are 37% more likely to believe their leaders care about building a human workplace.

So if gratitude is critical to the well-being of our people and organizational culture, we should all just start daily gratitude journals and say “thank you” more, right?

Sort of—but there’s a catch.

“All About Me”

Research shows that there are right and wrong ways to express gratitude, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., bestselling author and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School. In an article for Harvard Business Review, she writes:

“Recent research suggests that people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: They focus on how they feel—how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help—rather than focusing on the benefactor.”

Basically, people tend to make gratitude all about themselves. Halvorson summarizes research from the University of North Carolina that categorizes two kinds of gratitude:

  1. Other-praising – focuses on the actions of the giver
  2. Self-benefit – focuses on how the receiver is now better off

Researchers observed couples expressing gratitude to each other. Examples of other-praising language include:

It shows how responsible you are…

You go out of your way…

I feel like you’re really good at… 

Examples of self-benefit language include:

It let me relax…

It gave me bragging rights at work…

It makes me happy…

Turns out, other-praising is the only way to get the positive benefits of gratitude. “The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and love—but self-benefit gratitude was not,” writes Halvorson.

Have you thanked a colleague recently? What did you say or write? Who was the focus of the praise? Is there a way you could reframe your gratitude?

A great resource on gratitude is the Greater Good Institute at Berkeley, which offers five helpful tips for cultivating more gratitude at work:


  1. Start at the top. “It’s up to the people with power to clearly, consistently, and authentically say ‘thank you’ in both public and private settings.” A social recognition program, tied to your organization’s values, will help in this effort.
  2. Thank the people who never get thanked. “Thanking those who do thankless work is crucial because it sets the bar and establishes tone.” When you open up recognition to everyone, you get a groundswell of goodwill.
  3. Aim for quality, not quantity. “Create times and spaces that foster the voluntary, spontaneous expression of gratitude.” Mobile recognition lets you express gratitude wherever and whenever is most convenient.
  4. Provide many opportunities for gratitude. Allow for both public and private expressions of gratitude, depending on individual preference.
  5. In the wake of crisis, take time for thanksgiving. When your organization is going through a challenging time, it’s important to focus on gratitude in order to, “reframe a loss as a potential gain.” Findings from the WorkHuman Research Institute show a positive correlation between recognition and optimism for the future.

How grateful is your organization? Do you have tips for showing more gratitude work? Share with us in the comments!

Gratitude–You’re Doing It Wrong #workhuman
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Interview with Dr. Robert Emmons

10 New Studies on the Benefits of Gratitude

The Power of Workplace Gratitude: A Brief Bibliography

The Witness Effect: How Social Recognition and Gratitude Impact Everyone

The Science of Gratitude and Well-Being

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