Business Psychology

Article No. 341
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Gratitude 101

Research offers new guidelines for an old rule.

Most of us outgrow the incessant urge to ask "why" questions: such as "Daddy, why is the sky blue?" or "Why did Grandma die?" or "Why is Billy mean to me?" or "Why do I need to learn math?" "Why" questions are often difficult to answer, and they can make us uncomfortable. They can be a challenge to convention, a demand to justify a request, or even an accusation of insufficient authority to make such a request. "Because I said so!" is usually an unsatisfactory answer, and most people given this response hear instead, "Oh shut up and leave me alone."

Now remember way back in Management 101, back when you first found yourself with people calling you "boss." At that time, you were told to thank your people for their work. It was important, but did you ask "Why?" Adam Grant, from the University of Pennsylvania recently had the audacity to ask this very question, and he conducted four experiments to help him find an answer. Why should you thank your people? It turns out there is a very useful reason for doing so.

Professor Grant investigated two groups of people. The first were student volunteers who helped job seekers write letters of introduction to potential employers. The second were volunteer fundraisers responsible for soliciting alumni donations to a university. He conducted two experiments with each group, and in each experiment, some of the volunteers were specifically thanked for their work while others received another communication which failed to mention gratitude. Then he watched carefully to see what the students and the alumni volunteers did next.

The student volunteers who were thanked were much more likely to say "yes" when asked to assist with another letter, even when the request came from a different job seeker. The difference was substantial. A single expression of thanks doubled the number of student volunteers who agreed to provide further help. Alumni fundraisers revealed similar results. The alumni fundraisers in one experiment who were thanked made 50% more calls in the week following the expression of thanks. In the final experiment, thanked alumni fundraisers spent 15% more time on the phones. In each case, a single expression of thanks brought these dramatic changes in performance.

So, the immediate answer to the question, "Why should you thank your people?" seems clearly to be: "to get them to work harder." However, Professor Grant was not done asking why questions. He went on to the next why question: "Why does thanking people get them to work harder?"

Grant's experiments allowed him to test two theories that previous researchers had offered as possible answers to this question. The first suggests that thanked people work harder because they feel confident they are capable of completing the task. Thanked people feel more capable. The second possible answer suggests that thanked people feel more connected to others: an expression of gratitude helps a person feel more useful and helpful, and provoking gratitude in another person is such a positive experience that people seek opportunities to do it again. We'll call the first explanation the capable-person explanation and the second the social-responsibility explanation.

Grant designed his experiments to tell him if both explanations were important or if one or the other was best. It turned out the social-responsibility explanation won outright. An enhanced feeling of social responsibility is why thanked people work harder. They feel more connected to their social group, more responsible for providing needed help, and they feel very good about helping. Expressions of gratitude enhance people's self images as helpful employees.

Thanking your people is something you should do, but the understandings gained from Professor Grant's research clearly show how you should do it. You must wait for some helpful action, done for you, by an individual, and then you must thank that person for that action. For example, you may ask for a report to be completed and handed to you. When it is placed in your hands, look the person in the eye and say, "Thank you, I appreciate getting this." You should not list "Thank you" as an agenda item at the next staff meeting and then expound abstractly about how grateful you are for all the hard work blah, blah, blah. Remember: specific actions, specific expressions of gratitude. They need not be frequent. They do need to be sincere and believable. Do this, and you'll notice your people working harder and helping each other. And your superiors will call you a good team leader.

Reference: Grant, Adam M., and Francesca Gino (2010) A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946-955.

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