Putting Gratitude to Work in the Workplace

What if there was an initiative you could implement that would make your workplace one where people actually want to work, contribute, and belong?   And what if it was completely free, required no special training, and would generate results immediately?

That initiative isn’t too good to be true. It exists and it is surprisingly simple.

“Please” and “thank you” are among the first social courtesies we are taught. Beyond just good manners, a wealth of research over the last 20 years has illuminated what happens inside a grateful brain as well as the physical, emotional, and social benefits. When we appreciate what is good in our lives, we are inspired to do good things. We are more generous, altruistic, and kind to others. People with more grateful dispositions report being happier and more satisfied with their lives. Gratitude functions as the “social glue” that enables us to cultivate new relationships and nurture existing relationships —  the very foundation of a civilized society.

Why, then, shouldn’t it be the foundation of a civilized workplace?

Just like in our personal lives, a sense of gratitude can improve self-esteem, optimism, a sense of unity, and overall well-being at work. When we extend expressions of gratitude with our colleagues, we create a “pay it forward” chain of positivity.  Employees who feel appreciated are more productive, better team players, and more engaged – the essential ingredients for organizational success.

People may work for the paycheck, but they go the extra mile when they feel appreciated and are recognized for their contributions.

Implementing gratitude into your organization doesn’t have to be an HR initiative rolled out from the leadership team. Whether it is a simple “thank you” note or a more formal expression of appreciation, the psychological effects of gratitude in the workplace can have a tremendous impact on job satisfaction, effort, productivity, and corporate culture.

My new eBook, Gratitude at Work: It’s more than good manners; it’s good business, was designed to help you cultivate the power of gratitude in your organization. Whether you are the CEO, the receptionist, or the custodian, every single one of us has the power to put gratitude to work. If you don’t think one person is powerful enough to be a catalyst for positive organizational change, think again!


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa – I suspect you may get some push back on part of your sub-title “It’s good for business.” The purists may argue that it’s just about “good manners.” But if we get a few more leaders and staff to be civil and grateful because they realize it will help the bottom line, so be it. I don’t care how they get to awareness as long as they get to awareness. My wife just spent a week at a sales meeting and shared some stories that left me with a dropped jaw and my head shaking in disbelief.

    Well done! Going to share this one!

    • Jeff, that’s so interesting that you’d raise that point about the title. I just had an exchange on LinkedIn about it. Someone reached out to ask if appreciation for the sake of the bottom line still counts as “genuine appreciation.” It’s an interesting conversation, because as this LI connection James noted, “if my boss thanked me only because it improved the bottom line, doesn’t that count as transactional? And if it is transactional, then it shouldn’t count as gratitude, right?”

      I’d love to know what others think about this because I think James’ assessment is a good one. The antithesis of sincere gratitude is a transactional exchange (i.e., I’ll work hard for you if you do/give this). As we’ve learned from Dan Ariely’s work, not only is that not effective, it’s actually demotivating over time.

      Thanks for poking my brain…. now it’s going to spinning this around all day!

    • No doubt that some people will be disingenuous in their expression of gratitude. My optimistic side, which is in short supply these days, says that some of that depends on how the receiver reacts. If someone compliments me, and I say something like “Thank you, that means a lot,” maybe, just maybe over time the giver will actually feel it.

  2. Melissa, thank you for writing and sharing your article. There is a pronounced lack of gratitude that is being expressed in many different areas for a myriad of reasons with few of them (if any) being valid. At work, we want to feel appreciated and e told we are doing a good job. Complimenting an employee or saying thank you to them goes a long way. When you are hired to do a job in exchange for x amount of dollars you are expected to do your job to the best of your ability. Compliments are nice but they should not be necessary. More than anything else an employee will feel valued by the size of their raise, bonus, or promotion. There is a saying that goes something like this in the business world “money speaks louder than words.” You can’t buy anything with a compliment but you can with money. As a recruiter, I hear all different reasons people give for wanting a new job. Not feeling appreciated is one of them but I refer to my earlier statement that continued employment is all the gratitude you should need. In the end, as it so often does it comes down to $. When I present an opportunity to a candidate invariably the first question they will ask is what is the salary. Show me the money!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts, Joel. Respectfully, your perspective on what people want from work doesn’t match the statistics. One of the top reasons in survey after survey as to why people quit a job is because they don’t feel appreciated. And, while people may need a certain salary to take a position, that isn’t what keeps them there, or more importantly, it isn’t what keeps them engaged.

      Study after study shows that people will work harder for their coworkers and the organization when they feel their efforts are recognized and appreciated. Dan Ariely, one of my favorite researchers, conducted a study to find out just how motivated we are by money. He found that transactional incentives (i.e., you do a little extra today and I’ll give you a little extra money) are less significant – even demotivating – than genuine appreciation.

      I Found his work quite fascinatingly because it seems illogical that people would work harder and be more engaged from a simple thank you, but it’s true. I did a Neuro Nugget about that one here:

      I worked at a place for close to a decade and was the brand evangelist. I loved my job because I felt like what I did really mattered — to my team and the organization. I was respected for my knowledge and contributions. I got a few promotions and raises along the way, but I ultimately left that company and those people I loved because I got a new boss with a new attitude: “You’re not paid to feel good here. You’re paid to do a job.” Guess what? I took my talents and skills elsewhere as did many other people who worked under that man.

      There is a wealth of research out there supporting the individual and organizational benefits of cultivating a culture of gratitude at work. Much of that research is cited in my ebook. As a recruiter, I’d love to know your thoughts after you’ve had a chance to read it and reflect upon it related to your own experiences.

      Are you open to reading my ebook and continuing this discussion?

    • Melissa, I give no validity to surveys and alike as they are slanted. Research is also flawed. From my own personal experience and my experience as a recruiter, the number one reason people leave their jobs is $. Even if I speak to somebody who is quite content in their current job if I offer them something that pays more they more often than not make the move. As far as your e-book is concerned I do not have time to read books. I know what the facts are.

    • I’m really sorry to hear that, Joel. That there is a wealth of research – both qualitative and quantitative – substantiating the benefits of gratitude and appreciation in the workplace isn’t even the biggest issue here. In my experience, the more one learns the more one realizes how much more there is to learn. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect if you’re interested in learning more about that.

      And… books.

    • Research is only based on a small controlled sample. Surveys are often slanted to achieve the desired results. My statement is based on real-world experience. People do need to feel valued. Your thanks at work for doing your job is your paycheck. If you are looking for a pat on the back for that you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If you have to take on extra work you will want more than a thank you. The more one learns in their job makes them worth more when they look for a new job.

    • I think it’s obvious to most people who know me that I’m a learner. It’s also pretty obvious that Albert Einstein is one of my favorite people. I love him not because he was a genius, but because he never stopped learning. His “miracle year” at age 26 produced 4 papers that would literally change the world. He didn’t kick back and say, “hey… I’m a genius… I’m done learning and growing and teaching.” Until the day he died, he was challenging his mind with new problems to solve. I can only hope that I can continue to learn and grow and teach until my last day, too.

      One of my favorite quotes of his was, “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance.”

      Good luck in your endeavors.

    • The one thing Albert Einstein regretted most in his life was that he did not take time to learn Torah. A Jew who does not take time to learn Torah is not a Jew who can be called a genius or learned especially since all we know comes from G-d. Despite all of his knowledge and learning the one thing, he feared the most was was the cursed NAZIS!

    • Joel, I find that we can often learn the most from people with opposing opinions. Respectful exchanges of ideas that challenge people to shift their own thinking or consider a different point of view are the foundation of a growth mindset. The most enlightened among us don’t just tolerate people who challenge their thinking, they search for them.

      I’ve learned a lot from people who push back with a different perspective and sometimes I’ve even changed my opinion based upon information I didn’t know or ideas I hadn’t previously considered. I actually enjoy those kinds of exchanges.

      Unfortunately, this is not one of them. That you are so firmly entrenched in your “beliefs” and are unwilling to consider any data, research, or information that oppose those beliefs makes this an “agree to disagree” exchange. And I’m done with it now. Those who have nothing to learn have little to teach.

      And…. books.

    • To further illustrate my point about the power of money vs gratitude in the workplace I will tell you my son works for a company that buys and sells computer software, microchips, and hardware all over the world. The boss has an explosive temper. At any given time he will explode at one or more employee. My son has been working there for 6 years. The bosses son who also incurs his father’s rage has been there a little longer.The other employees have been there for close to 20 years. He does not compliment or show gratitude to anybody. So why do these people put up with his explosive temper? The reason is $! Come holiday time he gives out generous raises. On top of that he gives two months salary as a bonus. He has given my son impossible to get football tickets plus his parking pass. Every Friday even though he is not in the office he makes sure there is money for breakfast, He takes them out to lunch at least one a month to very nice restaurants. If you work for somebody that compliments your work and values you as an employee but does not pay you what your market value is a soon as somebody offers you more out the door you will go. You can’t buy anything with gratitude and compliments. At the end of the day if you are super appreciated but you cannot make ends meet because you are underpaid you will take the money and run. As a recruiter I speak to job candidates, hiring entities, and other recruiters from all over the country. Research is good for finding cures for diseases but when it comes to people they are worthless. A book will not be of much help either. When it comes to work, work environment and so forth only those who do this for a living know what should be.