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When people are stressed out and focus on the negative, they are more likely to treat their colleagues poorly. And many managers are at a loss when it comes to preventing uncivil and toxic behavior on their teams. New research on gratitude practices shows that encouraging colleagues to express thanks and focus on what they are grateful for can decrease mistreatment on a team. The authors’ recent study found that gratitude journaling decreased workplace rudeness by enhancing research participants’ self-control. While many managers may not want to hand out gratitude journals to their team members, they can — and should — emphasize the importance of expressing thanks and appreciation for colleagues.
It can feel like there’s little to be grateful for these days. Many of us are stressed about our health, our finances, and our jobs and these worries can create a vicious downward spiral, impacting our physical and mental health, hurting our performance at work, and straining our relationships. When we lose sight of the positive and focus on the negative, we’re more likely treat our colleagues poorly; we might insult them, talk about them behind their backs, and ignore or exclude them.
These uncivil behaviors are a widespread and expensive problem for organizations. Unfortunately, research offers few practical solutions to reduce mistreatment in organizations and most of those that do exist are pricey, time-consuming, and have shown limited effectiveness. With our 20 years of collective experience researching workplace mistreatment, we felt compelled to look at this problem, so we set out to find an effective and scientifically valid method to curb these toxic behaviors.
Since mistreatment is all about putting people down, we turned to research on positive psychology with the hope that it might reveal how to lift people up, specifically using gratitude. After all, studies have shown that feelings of gratitude improve relationships, enhance feelings of support, and increase prosocial behavior.
Research in this area also shows that people can purposefully cultivate feelings of gratitude with simple interventions. One involves forming “gratitude groups,” in which participants attend sessions to discuss, write about, and practice expressing gratitude with role-playing activities. Another involves writing a thank-you letter to someone and then reading it aloud to them. Perhaps the simplest and most well-known intervention involves keeping a gratitude journal, in which a person spends a few minutes each day jotting down the things, people, and events they’re thankful for.
We reasoned, given these findings, that a gratitude intervention might reduce uncivil behavior in organizations. We not only wanted to test whether that was the case but, if it worked, we also wanted to understand why. The positive psychology literature pointed us to four possible explanations. Gratitude interventions:
- Strengthen motivation to behave prosocially.
- Foster close interpersonal relationships.
- Improve self-control.
- Enhance feelings of support.
So we devised a study and, with the help of a research services company, recruited 147 volunteers who worked in a wide variety of industries, organizations, and jobs. There were teachers, housekeepers, and fast-food workers, along with those in more typical office roles like supervisors and IT technicians. We asked participants to journal about their workday for two weeks, and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. Those assigned to the gratitude condition were instructed to write about the people, events, and things at work they were grateful for. Those assigned to the control condition were simply asked to chronicle their day. After the 10-day period, employees completed an online survey to help us determine whether the journaling had any impact on their prosocial motivation, relationship closeness, self-control, and perceived support. A week later, we asked one of the employee’s coworkers to complete a survey as well, to report on the employee’s rude behavior over the past two weeks.
When we analyzed the data, we found that the gratitude journaling worked to decrease workplace rudeness by enhancing participants’ self-control. To ensure this wasn’t a fluke, we conducted a second study using the same procedures, this time with 204 employees. In addition to testing whether our gratitude intervention would reduce rude behavior, we also examined whether it affected how frequently participants gossiped about or ostracized their coworkers. We found that employees in the gratitude condition reported greater self-control and, according to their coworkers, subsequently engaged in less rudeness, gossip, and ostracism at work.
While our experiments provide evidence that gratitude journaling can play a role in reducing mistreatment in organizations, they aren’t a panacea. We don’t want to suggest that simply distributing gratitude journals to your team will eliminate bad behavior at work. Rather, we recommend that managers address the complex problem of workplace mistreatment more broadly, more holistically, by cultivating a culture of gratitude. How? Here are a few science-backed suggestions:
Leaders should serve as role models. To some, gratitude can feel hokey or trite. If leaders don’t buy in to building a culture of gratitude, employees can’t be expected to either. One way leaders can signal their commitment is by taking time to give each employee a sincere and personalized thank you. Worried about how long it’ll take to thank the 10, 50, or even 100 people on your team? During his time as Campbell’s CEO, Douglas Conant sent more than 30,000 handwritten thank you notes to his employees. He believed that the letters improved morale and productivity. For culture change to stick, leaders need to walk the talk.
Make time and space for gratitude. Many employees may feel ambivalent about expressing gratitude or appreciation publicly, so don’t force it. Instead, managers should make (physical or virtual) space and time for gratitude. For example, managers can create an appreciation wall or a dedicated Slack channel for employees to recognize others and give kudos. Managers might also start meetings with gratitude “check-ins,” during which team members can express one thing they’re thankful for. When employees pin notes to the wall or participate in check-ins, they create social proof that encourages their ambivalent colleagues to do the same.
Allow employees to interact with beneficiaries. Managers aren’t the only ones who can foster a culture of gratitude. You might involve customers, clients, patients, or other beneficiaries who are positively affected by the work of your employees. Consider an experiment Adam Grant and his colleagues conducted among employees responsible for soliciting university alumni donations. One group met briefly with a student who benefited from scholarships made possible by the donations they secured. The student described how their work funded his scholarship and how much he appreciated their effort. One month later, these employees spent 142% more time on the phone and raised 171% more money than those who didn’t meet the student. The implication? Organizations should hold events where employees can meet people positively affected by their work.
The bottom line: Managers should emphasize the importance of expressing thanks and appreciation at work. Cultivating a culture of gratitude won’t just boost employees’ well-being and performance. According to our research, it’ll also help stop workplace mistreatment. In our book, that’s yet another reason to be grateful.