ICology: Perceptions of gratitude in the workplace

Ep #38, Crystalee Beck with AnniverStory

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ICology Crystalee Beck

What is the perception of gratitude in the workplace? Do you tell your coworkers thank you? Do you feel appreciated by your manager? Crystalee Beck has researched gratitude from the perspective of the employee. Through surveys, focus groups and interviews, Crystalee has learned how managers can better demonstrate gratitude at work, along with catering it to specific employee needs.

In her research, Crystalee found that when employees feel appreciated at work they have:

  • A greater sense of well-being
  • Enhanced social bonds at work
  • More trust in their manager & organization
  • A boosted sense of satisfaction and belonging
  • Increased morale and commitment to the organization
  • A higher perception of social status

 In this episode of ICology, we also discuss the role that gender and generations play. And while many might view gratitude as only positive, Crystalee also learned there's a dark side to appreciation. 

Infographic: Fill up your Thank Tank


Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: We all like to be told, “Thank you,” or hear, “Thank you,” and as parents, we try to teach our kids to be polite and say thanks, but something happened on the way to work. We seem to have forgotten our manners. You could lump this into a larger employee recognition conversation if you wanted, but today, we’re going to focus on gratitude.

Over the years, I’ve heard some cynical employees and managers say that the only things they need is the paycheck every two weeks. Perhaps that is true for some, but is that the type of organization you want to lead or work for?

Get in your time machine. Go back to 2012. The Wall Street Journal had an article that talked about how often we say thanks in the workplace. The number? Only 10% say thank you to a colleague every day and even less say thanks to their manager. “Thank you” is just two words, but the impact can be quite profound in how frequent they’re said and with the right sincerity.

Now, let’s come all the way back now to 2016, and it’s the week of Thanksgiving. What better way to say, “Thank you,” than to discuss the current state of gratitude in the workplace with brand new research from our guest? I want to welcome to the show Crystalee Beck. She’s a writer, corporate and adversary consultant, and speaker. Crystalee, welcome to ICology.

Crystalee Beck: Thanks so much for having me. It’s really an honor.

Chuck: To continue on our theme here, I am thankful you’re on the show, but before we get into the gratitude discussion, who is Crystalee Beck?

Crystalee: That’s a good way to say it. We usually don’t ask someone who is … “Who is Chuck?” When I look at the core of who I am and my priorities, truly, like for me, I define myself as a child of God, and I’m a wife and a mother, and then in the professional realm, I look at myself as a professional communicator. I’ve always loved words. I’ve always loved writing, and that for me really comes to fruition in the communication realm, and so that’s where I’ve spent my career so far.

Chuck: Our paths crossed many years ago at previous employers that we both worked at that did some work together, and then through the years, you and I have been able to keep in touch which has been wonderful.

Crystalee: It was funny actually. As I was preparing for this interview, I looked through some of our like Google messages, and it’s, yeah, been a good four years, and we’ve never met in person, but we just found each other. Didn’t we, Chuck? We just stayed in touch all these years.

Chuck: On to the topic because I saw on Facebook that you had shared this news, and you did some very unique research on the perceptions of thanks in the workplace. Now, that research took place a few years ago, but you’re now officially published with this research. What was that process like to get published?

Crystalee: Wow. It has been quite the process. I started the research for my master’s thesis in the end of 2013, so it’s been a full three years since then. It took about six months to have it … have the research done, and the survey back, and starting to put it together. During that time, I’ve submitted to an abstract to the Corporate Communication International Conference. Thankfully, I was selected to present it, so I went and presented.

It was actually an international conference in Hong Kong, so that was six months after the research was started, but then moving forward, it took a full two years to go through the revision process and have it published. Academic publishing is … It’s not a sprint. It’s definitely a marathon. It’s a long-team endeavor. I didn’t realize how long it would take.

Chuck: Kudos to you though for sticking with the process because I think it really speaks to your dedication to your research in the topic, but also your desire to share the knowledge and the information.

Crystalee: Thanks. That was one of my goals in grad school. For whatever reason, I just really wanted … I wanted to get a notch in my publication belt, and you’re right too that throughout this process of meeting with employees and getting their perspective, I really wanted them to have a voice because there were so many things that they wanted their leaders to know, and it really became a passion for me.

Chuck: Now, was there anything in particular that interested you in the topic of gratitude at work before you started doing the research?

Crystalee: What guided me to it was I watched the interactions between people on my team. I was working at a global marketing and sales company, and I would see how my manager would respond when his boss, one of the C-level executives, when they would give him kudos, and then I would see how our team would respond when our manager gave us appreciation. For me, it was just this interesting side of human nature that we really seek and long for validation, and to be noticed, and to know that our efforts matter. I just wanted to know more about that.

Chuck: What was the method of your research like who did you talk to? What was the purpose behind it? What did you hope to find? Dig in to some of those, some of those core elements.

Crystalee: The three questions I came down to were, “What are the current mediums utilized? In what ways is thanks currently happening in the workplace?” The second question was, “Do employees consider these to be effective, and what are their preferences?” What I was really thinking through in a digital world now where we spend so much of our day in communication sitting at our desks like it doesn’t matter if someone says it to you in person. It doesn’t matter if someone writes you a thank you card or does an email, so I was interested in that.

Then, the third question was, “Are there any gratitude communication that should be avoided, and what are they?” I was really interested in finding that, so I looked through the perspective of employees, and in order to do that, I created a survey and sent it out. I ended out having a lot more interests than I thought I would. I had 883 survey respondents, so just shy of 900, and then I also conducted three focus groups so that I could get more qualitative narrative feedback from people.

Chuck: Now, I’ve read your paper which has some truly great data in it, but I’m curious just from a general sense to share with the listeners. What happens or maybe what doesn’t happen when employees feel appreciated? Are there any general themes out there?

Crystalee: A lot of this, I think you could probably guess before this research comes out, but when you pull them all together, you see the big picture of how beneficial it is. Employees feel a greater sense of wellbeing. They feel enhanced social bonds when they feel appreciated. They also have more trust in their manager and the organization as a whole. They have a boosted sense of satisfaction and belonging on their team. Also, as a team, there’s increased morale and commitment to the organization. Then, on an individual level, when someone feels appreciated, they have a higher perception of their social status.

Chuck: Now, I’m curious too. Did you happen to find any differences say in gender with the way gratitude in the workplaces is delivered or received, and/or where … Did you see any differences when it comes to generations? I’m the last person to jump on the millennial train, but I’m curious if it’s more of a junior versus mid-level versus senior type role if there’s any sort of differences in the way gratitude is delivered or received.

Crystalee: When you look at … so we’ll go gender first. When you look at gender in terms of, “Is gratitude important to you?” both genders ranked it to be highly important, but there was a little bit of a different. Actually, it was a very … That question itself was very similar between males and females. It was interesting to me though to learn that when you look at like specific types of gratitude like the mediums that men find … Both men and women ranked verbal one-on-one as the top preferred medium, and we’ll probably talk more about that. Both genders ranked that.

Monetary bonus was selected by 28% of men as their second choice and only 20%, 20.6% of women, and so that shows that men find more satisfaction receiving money as thanks versus women, and women really have a different perspective on gratitude, and there’s another research that I found on how women are just oriented differently with gratitude. Women just want to be thanked regardless of the medium, and they tend to … I’m quoting Cashton’s research here. They tend to drive greater benefits from the experience and expression of gratitude, so it tends to be a little more important for women, so that’s gender.

Then, looking at generationally. I thought it was interesting that there wasn’t really any statistical differences except for … I had different age ranges, so like all the way from 18 to 24 was one group. All the way up to the oldest group was 65 to 74. All of the age groups had pretty much the same rankings for what they preferred except for those millennials that you mentioned earlier. Ages 25 to 34 responded that their most preferred … Excuse me, that they … Nearly one-third, 31% ranked monetary bonus as most preferred with verbal one-on-one as second which I thought was interesting. 

Yeah, yeah. I don’t’ know if it’s just feeling uncomfortable with conversations, being more into the digital side of things. I’m a millennial myself, so I’m … Yeah, I’m not meaning to poke fun there, but I thought that was interesting. Out of all the age groups, they’re the only ones that ranked money as the top choice.

Chuck: Yeah. I don’t think that’s something that many people would probably expect just given the nature of the conversation or the narrative being told about this “millennial generation.” I said that real quick. Crystalee, you know what I call millennials?

Crystalee: I don’t.

Chuck: People younger than me. That’s all they are. That’s all they are. All right.

Crystalee: There you go.

Chuck: As we’ve alluded to, there’s all sorts of different versions of thank you. Some are public. Some are private. Some are written. Which ended up being the best or I guess maybe even possibly having the most impact?

Crystalee: Sure, great question. I looked at six different types of gratitude mediums. One is verbal one-on-one. Two is verbal in a group setting so public praise. Three is electronic note which covers email, social media, internet, anything like that. Four, a handwritten note or thank you card. Five, a tangible item so a gift or a swag. Six was a monetary bonus. Those were the categories we looked at.

Out of those six, the top ranked was verbal one-on-one, so 28.2% of all of my respondents. Almost 900 people, so nearly a third of them said that verbal one-on-one gratitude was the most important to them, their top preference, which outranked monetary bonus. That came up as the second. It was 25%, so it’s pretty close, but it was really interesting to me that verbal one-on-one conversation you have with your manager goes so far for someone even more than them handing you a check. I thought that was really fascinating.

Chuck: I think some managers also automatically think that some people want to be praised in front of their peers in a group setting, but I’m sure for some people, that could be a very … Even though it’s good news, even though it’s a great thing, it gets very uncomfortable for them.

Crystalee: That was interesting for me too. A lot of the findings I had about that came out in the focus group that that is very uncomfortable for some people, and that’s where I got into the dark sides, and we’ll talk more about that, but there are dark sides of gratitude that you can … You can do gratitude wrong in the workplace to the point that you have negative impact instead of positive. You’re right. For some people, that is very uncomfortable.

Chuck: Let’s go ahead and talk a little bit about the dark side. What were some of the things that you found from a negative side of gratitude?

Crystalee: This was fascinating to me. The dark sides, I put them into seven categories, and they were over-communication, unfair selection, undeserved, insincerity, withholding, unequal opportunity, or lack of relationship. If you have any one of those things happening, your employees might actually be unhappy with the … Very likely, they’re not happy with how you’re appreciating them.

For example, to go into unfair selection. I had people in the focus groups who … They’re very aware of who’s working hardest on their team, and they would have someone on their team who was constantly being praised when they were having their team meetings and being told, “Oh, thank you so much for all your efforts,” and it really bothered the rest of the team because they knew that that person wasn’t actually doing their part, and so when that happens, it can cause a lot of upset feelings.

Chuck: Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between employee and manager, and it’s something that’s come up in several different ICology episodes, but I’m curious. How does gratitude impact that relationship? I guess I’m even thinking from a manager standpoint. If they wanted to properly recognize or show thanks to an employee, how should they figure out or find out what the best method is for that employee? Should they just ask them?

Crystalee: I kept finding over and over that from employee’s point of view, it was really important that their manager was sincere. It came up again and again, so finally, I had them define … What does sincerity mean? What is that because it seems like … That’s really dependent on the person receiving the gratitude like they’re the ones that determine if it was sincere or not, and their answers came … Really, four themes came through. One was specificity, two was personalization, three was timeliness, and four was equivalency.

I’m just going to touch on these really briefly because I think it’s important for managers who want to be sincere and want their employees to know, “I really do appreciate you,” so being specific. One participant said, “The general ‘Thanks, great job,’ is not as good as when somebody thanks me for something specific,” and everyone in the room in this focus group nodded their heads at this point. Then, someone else said, “I know my manager is sincere when she is specific on what I did and the impact that I made,” and so they just said, “Call out specifically what we did,” and then personalizing.

Really, a lot of that comes down to that person’s name like saying their name specifically. “Julie, thank you for …” If they did a team effort, so say they pulled off this wonderful internal comms event and there was one person who just went above and beyond, this Julie. I’ll use the name “Julie,” to go to her and say, “Julie, when you stayed late those three nights in a row getting ready for this event, that really made a big difference,” and so that, personalizing it which ties in with specificity that’s showing that they really paid attention.

Then, the third thing was timeliness. One participant said, “There’s a timeline. If they wait too long, it doesn’t feel sincere, and so it’s just being aware.” Obviously, work is busy. There are things that come up, but if you wait a week, or two weeks, or three weeks until you show gratitude, you really lose that window.

Then, the fourth was equivalency. I thought this was interesting. One gal said, “It’s the magnitude of what I did. It should match the scope.” For example, if there’s one person who totally goes out of their way above and beyond and really makes difference, then the level of things that you show them, instead of maybe just a post-it note on their desk, “Thanks for what you did,” maybe buying them lunch or just something that’s bigger to equivalate to the efforts that they made. That was a long answer for you, Chuck?

Chuck: No, that was good because there’s another element. You talked about timeliness which I think is always important. It’s interesting that employees or I guess it’s great that employees brought that up as feedback because you’re right. If it’s something you did, and then three months later, the thank you comes, you probably would have liked to have been received gratitude for other stuff in between then.

I think there’s also the element of frequency, and you touched on this a little bit on the dark side of gratitude about it possibly sometimes even happening too much. For managers, how do they build gratitude into their workflow? How do they make it so it’s not too infrequent or too frequent? Do you have any advice for them on how they could make sure that they’re hitting all of those four key points that you talked about?

Crystalee: One of the figures, the graphs that I included in my paper was the frequency of managerial gratitude, and that was me purely just asking them, “How often does your manager do these things for you, so those six different categories of gratitude? How often do you get a verbal thank you? How often do you get a thank you note? How often?” It’s interesting to see … Not a lot of these things happen daily. It shoots up a lot weekly, so like nearly one-third employees receive weekly verbal thanks from their managers which aligns with their preferences.

A lot of employees feel comfortable if it’s about a once week, even semi-monthly. It gives them the choices of daily, weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, or never. When you have it right around that weekly and semi-monthly, every other week or so, just saying a quick thank you one-on-one or a thank you to the group, usually, they feel pretty comfortable with that.

It was interesting. I found a paper that said that managers perceive conversations with their staff to be more frequent than their subordinates perceive them to be. From the manager perspective where you’re going a million miles an hour, and you’re trying to keep your boss happy, and your trying to run your team, it’s easy to let gratitude slip, but just remember from the employees’ perspective, they feel like they’re hearing from you less than you feel like you’re talking to them. When you’re just aware of this perspective, you can consciously and strategically increase or decrease.

Then, I did share with … The first dark side is over-communication. Most employees said if they had a manager who was telling them multiple times a day or even daily, “Thank you guys so much. You guys are so great. Thank you. Thank you, thank you.” If they’re just saying it over and over, it really becomes a broken record and it doesn’t feel sincere.

Chuck: Yeah, and I would say I think that … and all of those elements are obviously very important, but I would say probably the ones where managers could probably do a bit better job on would be the sincerity part and then the specificity part because people want to know that it really does matter and the details on what they did does matter, so I think that’s really great advice for managers really of almost any size of team.

That’s one of the great things about this podcast because we have people that listen from large organizations to small organizations. No matter what the size of your team, gratitude is your … If you’re a manager and an employee, gratitude still plays a big part in that day-to-day work.

Crystalee: Yeah, absolutely. May I add one more thing for managers? I just think it’s really important that they know, as mentioned earlier, that employees are all little different, and so it’s important for you as a manager to understand what your employees prefer and often … Even if you just open it up in a team setting, you could do like just a five-question survey or you could do it in your one-on-one interviews, your progress reports you do with them, or whenever it’s appropriate.

You’ll find that if you ask them, “What feels best to you? How do you like me to thank you?” You’ll find that they’re willing to offer you suggestions like they’re willing to help you with that, so it doesn’t have to be this confusing labyrinth of, “How do I keep these people happy?” Like you can just ask them like … and most people are pretty aware of, “Oh, I’m really a gift person. I like gift cards,” or, “It really means a lot when people just say it to me.” People tend to know what they prefer.

Chuck: I think that could really be helpful for managers who might not be the most comfortable at giving gratitude or saying thank you, but if they know exactly what an employee prefers and will respond to, then I would hope that they would be more likely to give it because they would be more comfortable giving it knowing the employee would be more likely to receive it appropriately in that setting.

One of the other interesting things you talked about in the research was the difference between gratitude and feedback, so why don’t you explain that a little bit more?

Crystalee: Feedback kept coming up in my focus groups, and a lot of people would use it interchangeably, so they would say things like, “I hear job security when I hear that kind of feedback,” and so I started to ask questions to clarify, “So, what do you mean by that?” One participant I think really nailed a definition. He said, “To me, feedback is an evaluation of something you done whether good or bad. Whereas gratitude is after the fact and your manager goes out of the way … out of their way to let you know your efforts were appreciated.”

I asked the question in the survey when … The feedback was … I asked them, “Is gratitude or feedback more important? Which of these is more important?” 73% of the survey respondents said that they consider them to be equally important, and interestingly, there was actually more people who wanted feedback more than people who preferred gratitude. I thought that was interesting, but for the vast majority of people, gratitude and feedback are equally important.

Chuck: Then, there’s a special sort of niche gratitude that you’re particularly focused on that I think gives employees a chance to reflect on how far the company has come historically as well as from their own careers, and this is around celebrating corporate anniversaries.

Crystalee: That’s something I really am excited about. At that same company that I was in corporate communication, I had the rare opportunity to be one of the leaders for the company’s 25th anniversary. It was really me and the marketing director at the time that planned a lot of the macro and the micro details on that, and this is for … It was about 3,500 people at the company at the time, and so we had a lot of people all over the world to consider as well as people, about 800 people at the headquarters, and so we had to think through, “How do we include all these people?”

Doing that, that anniversary year, and all the different elements that went into it, in combination with this gratitude research, I’ve really found that companies who understand the value of their people and understand the value of their story, when they combine the two of them together, they can have a very powerful anniversary year. Not just like Pollyanna thank you kind of fluffy but … I mean, real impact on their sales, and impact on their public relations, and also, a big impact where I’m … My specialty is internally in the morale boost that it gives their employees. I’m, yes, currently consulting companies on their anniversary year, and it’s a lot of fun.

Chuck: What I think the opportunity here is whether you’re a young company celebrating your first year or somebody that’s five years, or 50 years, or a hundred years, those all become I think very symbolic moments for the company, for the employees, even possibly even for retirees depending upon the length that your organization around building that community and celebrating. We all know that employees should celebrate more and companies should celebrate more for all the various reasons you just described.

I don’t think that a lot of companies probably put the right thought or effort into what that anniversary means, and I’ve even seen some studies around that employees are more likely to leave their company around their own employment anniversaries because they’ve become reflective at that point and time, so it’d be interesting to see down the line if the same thing applies from a corporate standpoint, if there’s little bumps or boost when they hit the five, or 10, or 20, or whatever those symbolic years might be.

Crystalee: Yeah, that’s a great idea, Chuck. That’s a great idea.

Chuck: Every now and then, one comes out. You’ve also created a really helpful infographic showing some of this research that you’ve done. Where can someone download it, learn more about your research, and also connect with you, Crystalee?

Crystalee: Sure. This infographic is called “Fill Up Their Think Tank: What Employees Wish Their Leaders Knew about Appreciation at Work.” A lot of the things we’ve talked about, I’ve summarized in just nice little digestible tidbits for you, and you can find that at my website which is crystaleebeck.com. It’s C-R-Y-S-T-A-L-E-E-B-E-C-K.com/thanks.

Chuck: I’ll also put a link to that on the LearnICology website for anybody listening and wants to find out that infographic and also connect with you.

Crystalee: Thank you.

Chuck: You’re welcome, Crystalee. Oh, this gratitude planner on the air. 

Crystalee: It’s good stuff, Chuck.

Chuck: It is good stuff. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and do you remember who gave it to you?

Crystalee: I do, and it’s five words. It was given to me by one of the managers at that global sales and marketing company. At the time, I was working full-time, I was writing this paper, so I was finishing my master’s degree, and I was pregnant with my first baby. I just felt exhausted and stressed. I remember talking to him. He’s a very thoughtful person, and he said … At the time, he had just lost someone in his family sadly, and he said to me five words that really stuck with me. He said, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Yeah. I’ve always remembered that like we can never come back to where we are now like you can’t ever go to the same river twice, and I just try to just enjoy the journey.

Chuck: I think when I’ve heard that phrase uttered before, it almost have like a cynical feel to it, but the way you just said it makes you truly cherish the moment, so I like that.

Crystalee: Yeah. Yeah, that was how he said it to me. In light of that week, he had just lost actually one of his first grandchildren, had been a stillbirth, and it was just really sad for their family. Yeah. For me, it just really struck a chord of gratitude. Just really like recognizing all the good things in my life.

Chuck: On that thoughtful approach, what’s a final piece of advice that you want to share with listeners? This could be around the topic of gratitude or just something from the mind and heart of Crystalee.

Crystalee: It’s funny how spending time so much on a topic can really put an imprint on you as a person. For me, the topic of gratitude is so close to my heart because I’ve learned very personally that the more that I’m grateful for the people around me and the things in my life whether it’s that I have a house, and I have electricity, and I’m healthy, and my kids are healthy, and my husband has a job. All those kind of things. The more that I’m grateful, the more good flows into my life, and likes attracts likes, I absolutely believe that’s true that if you’re currently sad, depressed, angry, upset, whatever, if you’ll just look for things to be grateful for, you’ll start seeing more and more of them, and I swear it works. It really does.

Chuck: Thank you, Crystalee, for coming on ICology and sharing not just your research, but also your thoughts on gratitude in the workplace and also just your general perspective on how we can all be thankful, and with this being the week of Thanksgiving, it all gives us a chance to reflect and make changes in our lives, so I want to thank you for coming on here, Crystalee.

Crystalee: My pleasure, Chuck.

Chuck: Visit learnicology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know guests better, read blogposts, check out events. Also, all episode transcriptions are there, and keep an eye out for Something Else, the video series where I ask the internal comms community a question and you provide the answers. Remember, this December, there is a special celebrity question. Please follow ICology on Twitter, @LearnICology, to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news. If you’re already a subscriber, listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.