The Power of Gratitude and Appreciation in the Workplace

Our article this time around comes from Erin Wilson, an active duty Air Force Major. She's worked as an Acquisition Officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, and Hanscom Air Force Base, MA. She's also returned to her alma mater, the United States Air Force Academy, for a special duty assignment as a Senior Instructor of Management, where she taught over 300 senior students in International Management, Project Management, and Power and Influence courses. In this piece she talks about the power and influence of gratitude and appreciation.

I recently received an unexpected ‘thank you’ email from a former boss and the feelings and emotions that bubbled up inside from just a simple one-paragraph email almost surprised me. Then I took a moment to reflect and think back – similar exchanges throughout my almost 11 years of military service that stand out most in my mind are those times when I felt truly valued and appreciated in the workplace. It might not be the case for everyone, but for me (and I would imagine for others) the power of a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘great job’ goes a lot further than we might think.

In the Air Force formal ‘awards’ and stratifications matter (a lot) for things like promotions and special assignments, but it’s difficult to believe that they are always based on merit or necessarily go to the individuals who truly deserve them. There are so many factors at play, such as how an awards program is structured, who makes the decisions, visibility of certain programs or face-time with leadership, timing of upcoming promotions or moves, and more. So, if we attach our meaning in the workplace to awards or rankings against our peers, it leaves a lot of room for disappointment and thoughts of negative self-worth. Even worse, it can create a culture where people only do things to posture themselves for awards, which goes directly against the core value of ‘service before self.’

For those reasons, I think it’s important to balance striving to advance in one’s career with selfless leadership. How do YOU define making an impact? I believe if you truly care about your work and making an organization better, the rest – career progression, opportunities, etc. – takes care of itself. But, what about the in-between, the day-to-day grind with no ‘payoff’ in sight? It can sometimes be hard to feel seen or appreciated, especially when a job well done can often mean a green light for more work or responsibility. For certain people, that might be enough in the beginning, but over time without sincere appreciation, it could likely lead to burn out and frustration.

Let's step back to the example I mentioned earlier. My former boss sent me a note to let me know a simple continuity folder I left behind was being put to good use, and that the Department “missed having me around.” Reading his thoughtful message I was beaming. To know that something I had implemented to better the organization did not go unnoticed was gratifying and motivated me to continue to do the same in my current assignment.

I believe it’s important to note that while the act of recognition or appreciation is important in and of itself, the way in which it’s communicated matters greatly. Gary Chapman and Paul White, authors of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, defined four core conditions that allow people to actually feel appreciated and valued. Members feel truly valued when appreciation is: communicated regularly; in the language and actions important to the recipient; delivered individually and is about them personally; viewed as genuine and authentic. If delivered in a generic way, or only during official feedback situations, the recognition might be viewed as another ‘check the box’ action.

Besides the satisfaction on a personal level, the positive effects of workplace appreciation to an organization are tangible and profound. According to Psychotherapist Amy Morin, there are science-backed examples of how showing appreciation in the workplace can improve the culture and morale of employees:

  • Thanking employees increases productivity. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that grateful leaders motivate their employees to be more productive. In one study involving fundraising calls, employees who were thanked by their managers made 50% more fundraising calls than their co-workers.

  • Gratitude improves well-being. Many studies have linked gratitude to better physical health. Grateful people tend to have lower blood pressure, improved immunity, and healthier hearts. Some studies even suggest gratitude can help you live longer.

  • Gratitude builds mental strength. Studies show grateful people are more resilient. They’re better equipped to manage stress and they experience fewer toxic emotions, like resentment and envy.

  • Generosity is contagious. When leaders show appreciation and gratitude, there’s likely to be a ripple effect. Studies show cooperative and altruistic behavior spreads from person to person. Showing gratitude toward someone is likely to inspire that person to thank other people.

  • Gratitude increases job satisfaction. Research has linked gratitude to increased job satisfaction. When people feel appreciated, and they show appreciation for what they have, they’re more likely to be happy with their jobs.

As a leader, I try to emulate the example mentioned above and pass along positive words of encouragement or affirmation to my peers and the younger officers working in our organization. I also actively look for opportunities to advocate for individuals who I know are working hard and going ‘above and beyond’ the job but might not be getting the recognition from their chain of command. While a culture is often created or reinforced from the top-down, members at any level have the power to make a change. “Gratitude will really take hold when it’s also embraced from the bottom-up, when employees take the initiative.” References:

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