WSU study: Gratitude rates high in workplace

Tuesday , July 15, 2014 - 6:23 PM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- If you want happy employees, try thanking them once in a while.

“Gratitude still matters in the 21st century,” said Crystalee Beck, of Ogden. “It still matters very much.”

Beck is the author of “Perception of Thanks in the Workplace: Use, Effectiveness, and Dark Sides of Managerial Gratitude.” She presented her research at the Conference on Corporate Communication, June 3-6 in Hong Kong, and received recognition for the best theoretical paper and the best presentation.

Beck wrote the thesis as a student at Weber State University, working on a master’s degree in professional communication.

“I recognized, in the workplace, how gratitude affected me, and also how it affected my coworkers — both positively and negatively,” Beck said. “I would notice how great it felt after a really big project to have a manager take the time to thank us. I’d also notice how employees might sometimes feel disgruntled when they weren’t thanked.”

Those observations led to Beck’s research.

Sheree Josephson, chairwoman of WSU’s Department of Communication, was chairwoman of Beck’s thesis committee.

“It appeared to be maybe an unstudied topic — maybe one we take so for granted that we don’t think about it,” said Josephson. “To take a good look at it with an empirical study was interesting.”

Beck worked with three focus groups.

“I had to turn people away for these focus groups, because I had so many people willing to share their experiences,” said Beck. “I was a little concerned it would just be a venting session but, honestly, there were a lot of positives that came from employees.”

She and Josephson also wrote a survey, and received 883 responses through social media.

“Pulling out their stories and their quotes, I learned how important it is for employees to feel appreciated,” said Beck.

However, how much gratitude is desired varies by employee.

“One guy, in particular, said it almost irritated him to be thanked. In his opinion, he was showing up and getting paid for his job — he didn’t need any extra recognition,” she said.

But that man was in the minority. Most employees appreciate being thanked.

Beck asked employees how they want to be thanked, and gave them several options: A verbal one-on-one thank you; verbal thanks in a group setting; a digital message, which included email or social media; a handwritten note; monetary bonuses; or a tangible item such as tickets to a game or a T-shirt.

“The top preference was one-on-one verbal appreciation — it ranked very top, even higher than monetary bonuses,” she said, noting that 28.2 percent of employees prefer the verbal one-on-one compared to 25 percent who want to be thanked with cash. “It surprised me. ... It’s really important to employees to hear those words.”

A handwritten note was the least favored way of receiving thanks, at 2.4 percent. Beck did give survey respondents the option to say that employers should not express gratitude, and fewer than 10 percent agreed with that statement.

In addition to looking at the positives of gratitude in the workplace, she also looked at what she called “the dark side.”

“It’s not just a Pollyanna topic — there’s definitely another side when people are ignored,” Beck said. “Or when it’s oversaturated, then it can have a negative effect.”

Beck came up with seven categories of mistakes that can be made when it comes to offering thanks, but doesn’t want to say too much because her thesis paper is under consideration for publication. She did say that praise given too often can come off as insincere.

Josephson added that even a well-meant bonus can be tricky.

“For example, if you decide to express gratitude by giving all employees tickets to some event, some may want to go,” she said, but others may feel pressured to go even though it means leaving their kids and paying a baby sitter, or missing another event.

While there can be some negatives associated with thanking employees, expressing gratitude is good for the bottom line.

“Over time, if employees are not thanked, employers are more likely to lose them,” Beck said — and that means money will have to be spent hiring and training new employees.

The Lindquist Student Fellowship, awarded to Beck through the WSU College of Arts & Humanities, made it possible for her to travel to Hong Kong for the conference.

Josephson knew Beck’s thesis was good enough to be accepted into a conference, because it had a strong theoretical basis and practical application.

“But to win that award at that conference, in competition with people from all over the world — many with Ph.D.s — that was amazing,” she said.

Beck says she’s grateful to Weber State, for the support she received from the professors.

“I had a really great experience,” she said. “One thing I’m taking away from this experience is the value of verbal appreciation, whether in the workplace or your personal life.”

Beck hopes to do more studies on the subject of gratitude in the workplace.

“For this study, I wanted to look at it through the employee perspective,” she said. “For a future study, I think it would be interesting to look at it from the manager perspective, and it would be really interesting to compare the two to see if managers think they express as much gratitude as employees think they do.”

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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