Chuck Lauer: Gratitude

I'm always amazed at the number of people who have a hard time saying thank you, or expressing any kind of gratitude toward others. Over the years, I've had a few bosses like that. It wasn't pleasant to feel underappreciated, even though I knew that was just the way they were, and I was confident I was doing my job well.

Chuck LauerYou may have had the same experience as you came up through the ranks. Frankly, it's all too common. As a matter of fact, outright expressions of gratitude are surprisingly rare in our society, especially at the workplace. According to a survey last year by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pa., 48 percent of women and 56 percent of men admitted they do not regularly express gratitude. More so than in any other part of their lives, the survey found they were least likely to express gratitude at work –– even though, at the same time, these people definitely wanted to feel appreciated for what they did.

At a time when we're expecting employees to do more with less, all this lack of appreciation creates a cold, forbidding workplace. It can eat away at morale and productivity. In a study for the Society for Human Resources Management, about half of HR managers agreed that showing appreciation for workers reduces turnover and increases profit.

When colleagues are able to convey gratitude to each other, they build mutual trust and work better in teams, according to April Kelly, the author of "Gratitude at Work." "Gratitude helps people feel better, and when people feel better about themselves and about their environment, they try harder, they take more pride in what they do and they care more," she told The Nest.

So why aren't we experiencing more gratitude at our jobs? Respondents told the Templeton study they believed that if you thank others for something they did for you, you might be expected to do something in return for them. But what actually happens is very different. Experts say when you give people appreciation for something, they are simply very motivated to continue that behavior, and they don't expect anything back from you.

Bob Nelson, an employee motivation consultant in San Diego, told The Wall Street Journal last November that if people heap praise on others, they are worried about looking "insincere, shallow, superficial, manipulative, condescending or trite." Instead of appreciating what others do for you, "it's much easier to be the person who's always finding fault," he said. "It feels more like being in charge." Of course, all this faultfinding just raises the dysfunction of the workplace.

The amount of gratitude flowing around an organization has a lot to do with the attitude of the boss. Is he or she willing to express appreciation? Susan Heathfield, a management consultant in Williamston, Mich., told the Journal that if the boss is incapable of expressing appreciation, "a culture is likely to develop that emphasizes the negative, where people sit around and complain."

A lot of bosses believe they don't have to show gratitude because they are already expressing it, in the form of a paycheck. But true gratitude has to be personal and specific, or else it won't have any impact. "A sincere word of thanks from the right person at the right time can mean more to an employee than a raise, a formal award or a whole wall of certificates and plaques," Mr. Nelson wrote in his book, "1001 Ways to Reward Employees."

Which brings me to the employee recognition programs you see at many organizations. More than three-quarters of HR directors told the SHRM survey they run employee recognition programs. Isn't this a good way to demonstrate gratitude for a job well done? Paul White, a Wichita-based psychologist and co-author of "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace," doesn't think so. Many of these programs, he says, don't have much impact on employees because they dole out awards impersonally and don't focus on specific achievements. "When I talk to workers about their employee recognition programs, there's a lot of disdain and cynicism," Mr. White told CNN Money. "They distinguish between authentic appreciation and going through the motions."

However, I do see many signs of hope. Some CEOs out there are very good at expressing appreciation to their staff. I know because a few of them have been my own bosses. When I was publisher of Modern Healthcare, I reported to Rance and Keith Crain, whose company, Crain Communications, owns more than two-dozen trade publications. Without the Crain brothers' openness and gracious support, I can tell you the magazine would never have achieved the amount of success and admiration it has today. In their book, "The Crain Effect," the Crain brothers emphasize the importance of regularly sending employees notes of gratitude and appreciation.

Self-confident and enlightened CEOs have no problem giving credit where credit is due. They realize they could never gave gotten where they are today without a group of talented people working diligently on their behalf. The ancient Roman statesman Cicero, who knew a bit about such matters, said: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." Gratitude is the greatest of virtues? That's a big claim to make! But there are some pretty convincing reasons why this could be true.

Experts say people who express gratitude are, in turn, capable of great humility and making realistic assessments of the world around them. They are also likely to have a greater sense of equanimity in the face of distress and are better able to live in the moment. All these characteristics are seen in great leaders.

Expressing gratitude is also thought to make you a happier person because you're not so focused on your own needs and can put the world into perspective. Gratitude is "a kind of meta-strategy for achieving happiness," wrote Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in her book, "The How of Happiness."

The ability to feel and express gratitude is important in all aspects of our lives. Couples often get divorced because they could never express commitment and affection for each other. They might have felt gratitude and love but they just couldn't show it to each other, and that's really a shame. As the writer William Arthur Ward said: "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."

The experts say people who are not used to expressing themselves in this way need time to learn. Initially, you may run the risk of appearing insincere. To be believable, advisors say you should first put some thought into what you are going to say, but always keep it authentic. Every one of us needs to work on this, but with time, it comes easier and we grow emotionally. "Gratitude is a mindset and one that can become habitual, the more we engage in it," wrote Sindy Warren, a workplace conflict consultant in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Even crusty old executives like Jack Welch, the retired chairman and CEO of General Electric, recognize the importance of nurturing a culture of gratitude. He said he would thank employees on every plant tour and facility visit. "If you don't do it, you don't have a culture," he said. "You are just a bunch of bricks and mortar."

Chuck Lauer (chuckspeaking@aol.com) was publisher of Modern Healthcare for 33 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.

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