The Witness Effect: How Social Recognition and Gratitude Impact Everyone

November 13, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

It’s a fair bet that you knew being thanked makes you feel good. You probably even knew that feeling grateful also makes you feel good. But did you know that just witnessing gratitude can give you a boost?

One of the more interesting things I have run across recently is the work of UNC professor Barbara Fredrickson. She has done a lot of research not only on the power of giving and receiving gratitude, but also the impact on those who merely witness positive interchanges in their workplace. Those bystanders, say Fredrickson and her colleague Jonathan Haidt from NYU’s Stern School of Business, may experience positive emotions and behavioral change simply from being exposed to gratitude.

In her article Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals in Organizations, she makes a strong argument for the power of gratitude (see page 172-173):

“The momentary thought-action tendency triggered by gratitude is an urge to repay kindness, not in a tit-for-tat fashion, but creatively. Moreover, gratitude reflects, motivates and reinforces moral social actions in both the giver and the receiver of help. The feeling of gratitude reflects, motivates and reinforces moral behavior because giving thanks of acknowledgement rewards help-givers, making them feel appreciated and more likely to give help in the future.”

But more than simply being good for the givers and receivers, the benefits of broadcasting recognition to others itself has a huge secondary benefit. (I would call this the “witness effect” of gratitude and recognition.)

At Globoforce, we see this in the power of social recognition—where people are able to see recognition that has been given, add their congratulations, and bear witness to the recognition moment. Fredrickson calls out the work of Jonathan Haidt to support this idea:

“People who merely witness or hear about a helpful interchange may experience positive emotions as well. These onlookers, according to Haidt (2000, 2003) often experience the positive emotion of elation. [This sparks] a generalized desire to become a better person and perform helpful acts oneself. [It] does not steer elevated individuals simply to mimic the helpful act they witnessed, but rather to creatively consider a wide range of helpful acts as paths toward becoming more moral people. Experiences of elevation, then, carry the potential to change people as well as groups, organizations and communities.”

Witnessing gratitude and recognition, therefore, is a powerful motivator in itself. How can you work to increase this effect in your company?

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these companion posts:

Previous Article
Trauma Triage: How to Help Your Culture Survive a Merger
Trauma Triage: How to Help Your Culture Survive a Merger

How can you build a culture resilient enough to withstand the trauma of a merger or acquisition?

Next Article
What Organizational Virtuousness Is — and Why You Want It
What Organizational Virtuousness Is — and Why You Want It

Organizational virtuousness is more important than you might think in building resilience and a great compa...