1. Gratitude is about the whole person
According to author and consultant Mike Robbins, some gratitude initiatives fail to do anything new: They simply repurpose recognition programs, which have existed for a long time. Recognition rewards performance and achievement—what you accomplish as a worker—whereas appreciation acknowledges your inherent worth as a person, he says. It’s the difference between celebrating record-breaking sales vs. applauding a caring and helpful spirit.
“Appreciation is about people and their value,” says Robbins, whose forthcoming book is called Bring Your Whole Self to Work. “You create an environment where people feel valued and appreciated for who they are, not just what they do.”
In one of his favorite exercises, employees take turns sitting in the “appreciation hot seat,” and others go around a circle expressing appreciation for them. People start off hesitant, feeling awkward and a bit vulnerable, he says, but the experience often ends in laughter and hugs—not because they’re praising successful business deals or admirable reports, but because they’re getting at something deeper.
2. Gratitude isn’t one-size-fits-all
Another common pitfall when companies introduce gratitude is assuming that everyone wants to be appreciated in the same way. Pollack likens appreciation to love languages: Each individual’s language of appreciation is different, and we risk miscommunication if we assume everyone likes to receive a card, a coffee, or public praise. She has compiled dozens of different gratitude practices to try at work, from surprise care packages to appreciation badges to a celebration calendar.
Similarly, Pollack says, we all want to be appreciated for different things because we’re all different. Workplaces can bring together diverse people with different types of communication styles, backgrounds, and expertise, and it’s our job to recognize our colleagues’ strengths even if those strengths are different from our own. I feel valued for my passion for self-improvement and personal growth, for example, even though my fellow journalists have other specialties.
“The key is that there are things to learn from each other,” Pollack says. “Instead of being frustrated, it’s celebrating that, ‘Oh that person actually is seeing something I wouldn’t see in the same way.’ So we can learn how to appreciate that.”
3. Gratitude must be embraced by leaders
In a culture that prizes busyness and hard-driving achievement, people can feel guilty and self-indulgent taking the time to meditate at work or keep a gratitude journal. “We are taught that the busier we are, the more successful we’ll be,” says Emmy Negrin, former manager of the Yahoo Employee Foundation and Yahoo for Good. To send a different signal, she invited executives to attend a new mindfulness program at Yahoo in order to show their buy-in for the initiative.
At Southwest, the company used to send out pins to employees who had served the airline for a milestone number of years (like 5 or 10). To better honor their culture of appreciation, though, they now send the pins to leaders and invite them to recognize and celebrate the employee in a special way, transforming gratitude from a faceless gift into a relationship-building experience. In both cases, getting leaders to participate communicates that gratitude and well-being are important.
At the same time, though, gratitude isn’t something you can force. Gratitude will really take hold when it’s also embraced from the bottom-up, when employees take the initiative. SIYLI, for example, doesn’t have a formal gratitude program in their workplace. But since it’s part of their culture, says Bonanno, employees often bring up feelings of gratitude during “check-ins” that take place at the beginning and end of meetings. Communicating the value of gratitude, then offering a variety of opportunities and options for practicing it, may be the best approach. Which brings up the next tip…
4. Gratitude has to be part of the culture
For Fehr at the University of Washington, one of the keys to a successful program is consistency. For example, adding a short gratitude practice to staff meetings or infusing internal communications with gratitude keep it top-of-mind. Employee awards once a year won’t cut it, he says.
“Ultimately, it’s about creating an organizational culture around gratitude,” says Fehr. “Organizations need to, as a baseline, treat their employees well, and then on top of that the organization also needs to develop programs that help them see all of these positives.”
Organizations can’t even assume that an intensive immersion in gratitude, like Pollack’s three-day appreciation retreat, will be enough. Luckily, though, her once-reluctant nonprofit employees understood that. During the six months after participating in the retreat, they worked with her closely to build a culture of gratitude, introducing some appreciation practices into the larger organization. Today, she says, they’re “definitely in a better place.”
“Acknowledging the thoughts and efforts of people with gratitude shows that those people matter,” she says. “When I’ve seen it work, it’s just life-changing.”
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.