The ability to say “thank you” to people that perform well or otherwise advance the shared purpose of the organization is a character strength that I believe we should require from those that we grant the privilege to lead. Expressing gratitude for the contribution of others is a type of reward power that can make us more influential with others.
The evidence on the power of gratitude in the workplace is meager; however, a very well done study published in 2010 helps us better understand why a little thanks goes a long way. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino proposed that when we express gratitude, people are more motivated to be helpful because it increases their feelings of self-efficacy (capability and competence) and social worth (appreciated for making a difference).
Through a series of four separate experiments (see below for full citation) they found that when people received expressions of gratitude for their work, it increased both the frequency and duration of behaviors intended to help the organization. When people were thanked for their efforts, it enhanced both their feelings of self-efficacy and feelings of social worth, but only social worth was a significant predictor of helping behavior. According to the authors “when helpers are thanked for their efforts, the resulting sense of being socially valued, more than the feelings of competence they experience, are critical in encouraging them to provide more help in the future” (p. 953).
If all your people ever do is only what is in their formal job descriptions, your organization will be mediocre at best. For your organization to excel, your folks need to be good citizens and do more than what’s simply required to help the organization and their co-workers. Leaders that express gratitude to their employees make them feel valued, and this evidence shows that when employees feel valued they behave in ways that the organization values.
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Full citation: Grant, A.G. & Gino, F. (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.