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Have an Attitude of Gratitude

November 1, 1997
Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article
During this month when we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to reflect on how thankfulness—and more specifically, gratitude—fits into the cultivation of employee commitment and motivation. A spirit of gratitude makes a huge difference in how employees perceive the expression of business thank-yous. This can impact corporate productivity and profit in a big way.

Everyone knows that employers traditionally have "thanked" employees for their work by giving them a paycheck. Many employers also recognize employees for any extra effort they put into their jobs through recognition programs. These programs are institutionalized ways of saying "thank you" to employees for jobs well done. As a business community, American businesses collectively seem to have fairly good recognition programs.

Problems are arising, however, not in what we do to recognize employees (our actions), but in how we deliver the recognition (our attitudes). It’s the how that’s critical today; it’s the one element of our recognition efforts that can make all the difference in successfully thanking workers and gaining their commitment.

Employee commitment is withering.
It’s no secret that companies are struggling to secure employee commitment these days. Employees are less secure and less trusting of their employers than ever before. This comes at a time when our economy is thriving, and more areas of business are booming. According to a recent cover story in USA Today: "A new nationwide survey on the mood of workers reveals lingering insecurity and unhealed wounds from the downsizing and restructuring that battered Corporate America in the early years of this decade." The article went on to say: "Despite a 4.8 percent jobless rate and the tightest job market in 25 years, workers are feeling more anxious than ever."

Of course, much contributes to creating those anxious feelings. And no single remedy will alleviate them. However, there are things that businesses, and especially HR pros, can do with employee recognition that will help. It has to do with connecting with employees again. Simply, it means adding back the human touch to everything we do.

Let’s begin by seeing our employees as people, human beings, who have strengths, weaknesses, and ups and downs. People are neither "intellectual capital" nor commodities; they’re people. Almost all of us want the same thing—the ability to contribute our talents in a meaningful way and to be acknowledged for that contribution.

"In general, I do believe that the personal touch has been lacking in employee recognition," says Hilton Augustine, chairman and CEO of Global Management Systems (GMS) Inc., a global network systems integration consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland. "In the IT industry within which the demand for professionals far exceeds the supply, attrition is the [death] sentence for companies convicted of inattention to their employees."

How can we, as an HR community, bridge this problem? How can we let our employees know they’re meaningful to us—beyond the paycheck? What would happen if we cultivated an attitude of gratitude at work? And how would we go about doing this?

Gratitude is saying "thank you," and meaning it.
There’s an important difference between simply saying "thank you" and being grateful to people who contribute above and beyond the call of duty. It’s this element of gratitude that has been missing in many of our recognition efforts. Successful gratitude at work is all in the spirit behind what we do.

Recognition is the mere acknowledgment of people for their actions; it’s a quid pro quo, this for that, arrangement. Gratitude is deeper. It’s a gesture backed by sincerity of purpose. It involves feelings. And in its deepest form, gratitude is a type of love. That perhaps, is what scares us. What place do feelings such as love and gratitude have in the workplace?

Plenty. Gratitude is appreciation for benefits received. It’s an emotion that opens us up to seeing life in a more positive light and having feelings of goodness, joy and love. It makes the workplace more meaningful. And where workers find meaning, they generally find motivation to perpetuate that sense of meaningfulness. Hence, employers gain commitment.

Add gratefulness into recognition programs. What are some ways to express gratitude?
Here’s one top-down way. Augustine, the CEO at GMS, says he sends out CEO thank-you cards to employees’ homes. Says Augustine: "I use cards with success theme covers and personally hand write notes to employees specific to their accomplishments. I believe employees get an extra-personal stroke when they open the cards surrounded by their family members."

Here’s a line-manager approach. Mark Uebel, director of HR for the Center for Behavioral Health in Bloomington, Indiana, says managers at his firm are budgeted $50 per employee per year to use in any way they see fit (gift certificates, meals, flowers and so on). It’s meant to be used as a simple pat on the back. "It’s not a huge gift," says Uebel. "But it is big when it’s used genuinely."

Therein lies the entire key to gratitude: It’s not just what you give to employees, but how you give it to them that makes all the difference. It needs to be personal and genuine. But from my own experience as an HR director, I know how difficult this can be. Sometimes I’ve caught myself saying "thank you" when I had already mentally moved on to a new topic, yet there I was, standing in front of the person. I hadn’t been "present" mentally and emotionally with that employee at the time of contact. Unfortunately, the result was that my gesture wasn’t an act of gratitude, it was a rote act of giving thanks. What happened was the person felt he or she wasn’t important to me—the opposite of what I aimed to do.

Some supervisors believe gratitude can be overdone and should be saved for special occasions. This is nonsense. If you sincerely say "thanks," then it can’t be abused and will always be received with sincerity. Why be stingy with gratitude and abundant with criticism? Perhaps it’s the style we all learned—that if we criticize enough, we can change behavior. However, if it really worked, we all would have achieved perfection by age seven! Criticism doesn’t work. What works is to give love, thanks, encouragement and inspiration.

During Thanksgiving, let’s look at giving gratitude as a way to inspire and encourage both our employees and ourselves. We do such remarkable things. Let’s acknowledge ourselves and our people, and begin to see that gratitude can lead us to a powerful, peaceful state of being.

Workforce, November 1997, Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 77-78.

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