The Witness Effect: How Social Recognition and Gratitude Impact Everyone


People who witness gratitude aspire to better themselves.As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been researching and digging around in current scholarship for the webinar we are hosting on November 19, at 2pm EST. (It’s called The Science of Gratitude: A Recipe for a Happier Workplace.)

One of the interesting things I have run across is the work of UNC professor Barbara Fredrickson. She has done a lot of research not only on the power of giving and receiving gratitude, but also the impact on those who merely witness positive interchanges in their workplace. Those bystanders, say Frederickson and her colleague Jonathan Haidt from NYU’s Stern School of Business, may experience positive emotions and behavioral change simply from being exposed to gratitude.

In her article Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals in Organizations, she makes a strong argument for the power of gratitude (see page 172-173):

“The momentary thought-action tendency triggered by gratitude is an urge to repay kindness, not in a tit-for-tat fashion, but creatively. Moreover, gratitude reflects, motivates and reinforces moral social actions in both the giver and the receiver of help. The feeling of gratitude reflects, motivates and reinforces moral behavior because giving thanks of acknowledgement rewards help-givers, making them feel appreciated and more likely to give help in the future.”

But more than simply being good for the givers and receivers, the benefits of broadcasting recognition to others itself has a huge secondary benefit. (I would call this the “witness effect” of gratitude and recognition.)

At Globoforce, we see this in the power of social recognition—where people are able to see recognition that has been given, add their congratulations, and bear witness to the recognition moment. Frederickson calls out the work of Jonathan Haidt to support this idea:

“People who merely witness or hear about a helpful interchange may experience positive emotions as well. These onlookers, according to Haidt (2000, 2003) often experience the positive emotion of elation. [This sparks] a generalized desire to become a better person and perform helpful acts oneself. [It] does not steer elevated individuals simply to mimic the helpful act they witnessed, but rather to creatively consider a wide range of helpful acts as paths toward becoming more moral people. Experiences of elevation, then, carry the potential to change people as well as groups, organizations and communities.”

Witnessing gratitude and recognition, therefore, is a powerful motivator in itself. How can you work to increase this effect in your company?

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