Why Expressing Gratitude Through Our Leadership Matters

A look at how expressing gratitude can help leaders bring out the best in those they lead and drive their organizations to succeed.

This past weekend marked the celebration of Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, our last holiday long-weekend before the inevitable cold blast of winter arrives to blanket our country in snow and ice. While Thanksgiving in Canada differs from that in the United States in being a celebration of the end of the harvest period, what these two holidays share in common is that it’s a holiday for spending time with family, and expressing gratitude for the good fortune we’ve experienced this year.

After spending time with my family this weekend and catching up with everyone, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between those moments of sharing words of gratitude with my family with those moments where leaders express gratitude to those they lead.

After all, more than simply being a nice thing to do, expressing gratitude through our leadership has been shown to have a tangible impact on the overall productivity of our employees, if not also on the level of commitment they bring to the work they do.

For the past several years, Dr. Adam Grant and Dr. Francesca Gino have been studying how expressions of gratitude impact prosocial behaviour and fuel motivational drive, and one study in particular provides some interesting insights for leaders on the benefits of expressing gratitude to those under our care.

Dr. Grant and Dr. Gino conducted an experiment to look at how expressing gratitude would affect the motivation and commitment levels of fundraisers who were hired to raise funds for a university from within their alumni community.

For this experiment, the fundraisers were paid a fixed amount regardless of how many calls they made, and each of them was provided with daily feedback about their performance. The fundraisers were separated into two groups working different shifts, with one group getting a visit from a university director who personally thanked the fundraisers for their work, while the other group was simply left to do their assigned tasks.

What the researchers found was that the fundraisers who received those messages of gratitude from the university director made more phone calls to help raise money for the university as compared to those who hadn’t.

Upon reviewing the results of their experiment, Dr. Grant and Dr. Gino concluded that expressions of gratitude increase employee motivation and performance levels because it makes people feel ‘socially valued’.

Now to be clear, this doesn’t mean that all we have to do is say ‘thank you’ to our employees in order to increase their productivity. Rather, what this study’s findings demonstrate is that a genuine recognition of your employee’s efforts will ignite their internal drive and commitment [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

In other words, this isn’t about providing some form of personal validation to make people feel good about themselves. Instead, this is about making an intentional effort to recognize the value or benefit your employees create for your team and organization.

Again, think of those moments where we express gratitude, whether it’s for Thanksgiving Day, on a birthday or anniversary, or any other event that has you reflecting on your life and the accomplishments or achievements you’ve attained. In those moments where we express gratitude, what we are doing is appreciating what we’ve attained and the positive difference it’s had on our lives.

Similarly, when it comes to expressing gratitude through our leadership, it’s not simply a matter of saying ‘thank you’ to our employees for doing their job. Rather, it’s about appreciating and recognizing the unique qualities, traits, and contributions they’ve made that have helped your organization to evolve and grow.

Indeed, gratitude is the highest form of recognition leaders can give to those under their care [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. It demonstrates our understanding of how the successes and gains our organization has made were not simply a product of our leadership, but the result of the collective contributions made by our employees.

It also helps our employees to better understand and appreciate how their efforts have impacted their colleagues and their team.

For example, perhaps you have within your organization an employee whose natural exuberance to bring forth new initiatives they’d like to undertake inspires other employees to push forth their own ideas. Or maybe you have an employee whose natural people-skills makes them an invaluable team member in helping to break the ice when meeting with new clients.

Although these behaviours and actions are not a part of their job description, their efforts matter because they help to drive your organization forward.

Seen from this perspective, we can better understand the benefits expressing gratitude through our leadership can bring. Namely, that expressing gratitude is a powerful reminder of how we need each other to succeed and thrive [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; that our accomplishments are not ours alone, but something to be shared and celebrated collectively.

But this study by Dr. Grant and Dr. Gino also reveal another important benefit that arises from leaders expressing gratitude to those under their care. As these researchers demonstrated, when we express gratitude to others for the efforts they make on our behalf, people become motivated to lend even more support to help us to achieve our objectives. And not simply due to any feelings of reciprocity – where they feel obligated to do more because of how we view their contributions.

Rather, this internal motivation is derived from a clearer understanding of the value they are able to create for others as a result of their efforts, thereby fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do; that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.

And this perhaps is one of the things we tend to overlook about expressing gratitude to others – gratitude allows us to see the best in those around us, and how they help us to do and be better [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

And when we consider the fact that this is what’s required to inspire and empower our employees to bring their best efforts to the work they do, it becomes clear why expressing gratitude through our leadership is more than simply a nice gesture.

Indeed, we can now appreciate it as being a critical source of feedback that we should be offering to our employees to not only provide them with some context for the value they are creating through their efforts, but to ignite within them the drive and desire to become that better version of themselves.

So whether or not you celebrated Thanksgiving as my family and many of my fellow Canadians did this past weekend, allow me to take this opportunity to express gratitude to all my readers who’ve supported and championed my writings and insights on leadership.

And here’s to hoping that leaders everywhere will recognize the benefits of expressing gratitude to those they lead. Specifically, of how gratitude helps to draw our focus outwards to those we lead and the unique benefits they bring [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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