How Workplace Gratitude Leads to Company Resilience: Q&A with Ryan Fehr (Part 2)

November 9, 2017 Emily Payne


We recently chatted with Ryan Fehr, associate professor of management at the University of Washington School of Business in Seattle. He researches positive organizational scholarship, ethics and morality, and leadership, with expertise in corporate social responsibility, ethics, and organizational behavior.

Fehr received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned his bachelor’s degree at The College of New Jersey.

Check out part two of our interview below, or listen to the episode of WorkHuman Radio in the first post.

Globoforce: In your work, you talk about communal norms and exchange-based norms. Can you talk a little bit about that, how they impact relationships, and possibly how gratitude can help?  

Ryan Fehr: Exchange-based norms, as the name implies, are very transactional. This is a system where I do something for you, and then you immediately pay me back. As I mentioned, this is part of this tendency to view work as a very transactional system, where we’re always focused on the short-term needs. Communal norms, in contrast, are much more focused on the long term.

You can think of a communal norm as the type of norm that you have in a friendship. When you help out a friend, you don’t immediately expect that he or she is going to pay you back equally the next day. There’s an unspoken understanding that you’ll always be there to help each other, that you trust each other. Gratitude can have a very powerful role in helping to build and reinforce these types of relationships. Because when we start expressing gratitude in our workplace relationships, we’re bringing in our emotions, we’re bringing in our full selves, and we’re opening ourselves up a little bit to a deeper relationship with our colleagues.

As we develop those deeper relationships, that’s where we can shift from this exchanged-based setup, where we’re only thinking about this relationship in a work context, to a fuller, more communal, more long-term relationship.

Do you think it’s possible for an organization to become more resilient?   

I do, and I think this is an important aspect of gratitude, as well. Organizations face so many different challenges every day, from consumer demands to new regulations. Resilient organizations are able to thrive in the face of this adversity. They’re able to face it and become stronger as a result of it. Interestingly, research on resilience suggests that it’s most likely to emerge when there are high-quality relationships at work.

Employees already have strong relationships with each other. When the workplace has growth experiences, it increases employees’ commitment and dedication to the organization. Gratitude is a great way to improve the quality of relationships at work, to help bind employees together. Gratitude is a great way to help employees see, recognize, and focus on all of their growth opportunities at work.

Gratitude is also a great way to build trust across employees, helping to build communal norms. Then, when you face these outside challenges, competitive pressures, and downturns, the organization has the capacity to deal with these things. The employees have the capacity to face those challenges head-on and have the energy and engagement to really help the organization push through and succeed.

We can think about gratitude as a long-term investment in the health of the organization. If you have gratitude as a norm, then employees are going to be more prepared. They’re going to be more willing to face those challenges with you, rather than giving up or leaving the company.

Ryan Fehr: Social recognition programs can play a vital role in increasing gratitude at work. @UW…
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How do you see social recognition programs increasing feelings of positivity and gratitude at work?   

Social recognition programs can play a vital role in increasing gratitude at work. In particular, social recognition programs can create rituals around gratitude expression. Employees see these social recognition programs in the organization, and they start recognizing gratitude as a part of the culture. They’ll see that gratitude is encouraged and supported by the organization.

Through these appreciation programs, they see top management expressing gratitude to employees, making gratitude a part of what people do every day, and then they to learn to do the same. We know employees figure out what they’re supposed to do and what’s rewarded in the organization by what their leaders do. This is a great way to send a strong message from the top down, that gratitude is something that’s valued in the organization.

Appreciation programs are helpful because they create this ritual and they help employees see the role that many different people play in the organization’s success. It helps employees see how everyone is interconnected and that everybody plays a role in the organization’s success.

Appreciation programs work best when they focus on praising employees and teams for their effort and perseverance. That’s ideally the goal of an appreciation program, as opposed to singling out an employee’s performance at the expense of others, such as when you reward a top sales associate. When you do that, you create a more competitive environment, a more transactional one. So you do need to be careful about how those programs are developed. But I do think they’re very powerful.

Values-based recognition is the most impactful because it shows how each person is demonstrating the values of the company, no matter what their role.

That’s a great way to put it. Because you’re going to get whatever you reward and whatever you show that you care about. If you center your appreciation programs around the organization’s values, you’re showing that those values and the enactment of them is really what the company cares about. That’s a great way to reinforce the culture and avoid some of those risks that I mentioned.

What does a more human workplace mean to you?   

I would say a more human work place is one that allows employees to bring their complete selves to work. As human beings, we want to develop lasting connections with other people; we want to grow and develop our skills; and we want to make a positive difference in others’ lives. By breaking down the notion that work is this siloed domain where people aren’t supposed to express their emotions or have strong relationships, we can deeply improve employee engagement and performance, because they’re bringing their whole selves to work and then work becomes a part of their whole selves.

Ryan Fehr: Gratitude is a long-term investment in the health of the organization. @UW #WorkHuman…
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