More Powerful People Express Less Gratitude


If you feel underappreciated at work, you’re not alone: 59% of employees say they have never had a boss who “truly appreciates” them. In a separate survey, 53% admitted they would stay longer at their company if they felt more appreciation for their work. The existence of gratitude consultants speaks to the scope of the problem. Clearly, many organizations can and should do more to make their employees feel appreciated.

Although the benefits of gratitude at work are well documented, less is known about the types of employees who are more or less likely to express it. In a recently published paper, we examined the relationship between organizational power and gratitude. Does having power (e.g., being a manger or executive) influence feelings and expressions of gratitude? If so, why?

In one study, we measured the amount of gratitude authors expressed in the acknowledgements section of published articles in an academic journal over a 40-year period. We found that higher-ranking authors (e.g., full professors compared to assistant professors) thanked fewer people in their published articles. We found the same pattern of results when we used a software program to analyze 136,215 comments exchanged among 12,681 different Wikipedia editors, whose level of formal power within the Wikipedia community varied: Higher-power “administrators” expressed less gratitude than non-admin editors who have fewer page editing privileges.

To rule out the possibility that lower-power people express more gratitude simply because they tend to receive larger or more frequent favors, we conducted an experiment where we held everything except the participant’s power level constant. We randomly assigned participants to complete a series of tasks while playing the role of a low-power subordinate or a high-power boss in an organizational simulation with other “employees” distributed across the country. During the simulation, participants unexpectedly received a favor from one of the other participants who we described as either their boss or subordinate. (In reality, one of the researchers played this role and followed a script.)

After receiving this favor, participants had an opportunity to communicate with the undercover researcher in a chat window. Consistent with our other findings, participants in the high-power boss role expressed less gratitude while chatting with the “other participant” than participants in the low-power subordinate role. They also reported feeling less grateful for the favor.

In a final experiment, we wanted to understand why high and low-power individuals express different levels of gratitude. We found that higher-power people express less gratitude because they feel more entitled to favors and benefits from others based on their elevated standing in the hierarchy. Lower-power people, however, express more gratitude as a way to cultivate stronger relationships with powerful people.

Overall, our findings suggest that the more power organizational members wield at work, the less gratitude they are likely to feel and express due to elevated feelings of entitlement and reduced concerns about their relationships with others.

The good news is that leaders can learn to express gratitude more often. In environments where they don’t, we also offer gratitude strategies for all employees, particularly those who feel underappreciated by their managers.

Gratitude Recommendations for Leaders

Don’t underestimate the impact of expressing gratitude.

Some managers may believe that expressing gratitude has little effect on their employees. However, research suggests that this perception is misguided.

For example, in a series of studies, researchers had participants write letters expressing gratitude and predict how surprised, happy, and awkward recipients would feel. Recipients then reported how receiving the expressions of gratitude actually made them feel. Expressers significantly underestimated the positive reactions from recipients and overestimated how awkward the gesture was. Importantly, expressers’ misguided expectations were associated with a reduced willingness to express gratitude.

Moreover, receiving gratitude is associated with increased work engagement and better performance. For instance, newborn intensive care unit teams that received gratitude from the child’s mother engaged in more information sharing, which in turn drove increased team performance. Other research has found that team members who were prompted to reflect on why they were grateful for their team members subsequently engaged in more deliberate and thorough integration of others’ ideas which, in turn, led to enhanced team creativity. Finally, people who witnessed someone being thanked were themselves more helpful toward the grateful person, suggesting that the benefits of expressing gratitude may come full circle for grateful leaders.

Expressing gratitude is even more important (and challenging) in the context of remote work.

It’s easy for messages to get lost in translation or diluted when communicated virtually and asynchronously. The widespread increase in remote work ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic makes gratitude expression all the more important, but also more challenging. That’s because richer communication mediums (e.g., face-to-face) are perceived to be a more authentic means of expressing emotion.

Leaders of hybrid work teams should take advantage of limited in-person encounters with employees to express gratitude face-to-face so that non-verbal cues can shine through. And leaders of fully remote teams should similarly prioritize richer communication mediums like video calls over audio only (e.g., phone) or asynchronous mediums (e.g., email). Additionally, expressions of gratitude can help to clarify job ambiguity for employees (which may be higher in the context of remote work) by highlighting what people are doing well.

Cultivate an ecosystem of gratitude and lead by example.

Ultimately, leaders hoping to create a culture of gratitude in their organizations should model and normalize gratitude in their informal encounters with employees, as well as in more formal recruitment, onboarding, and performance review settings. The key to sustaining a culture of gratitude lies in embedding these practices in employees’ day-to-day routines — perhaps with the assistance of employee recognition platforms — so that gratitude norms outlive any single manager or CEO. After all, it may not be feasible for every leader to hand write more than 30,000 thank-you notes to employees as the former CEO of Campbell Soup once did.

A number of companies have taken steps to cultivate an ecosystem of gratitude. For example, at Glitch, employees working on various teams and projects take time during each town hall meeting to publicly express gratitude to others in the company, acknowledgements the company refers to as “kiwi bravos.” Bravos can take many forms from recognizing someone who contributed a solution for a vexing technical question to praising an individual or project team that went above and beyond the call of duty for a customer.

At Zappos, employees are encouraged to give each other a form of internal play money called “Zollars” when they observe a coworker doing something praiseworthy. Zollars can be redeemed for fun items at the Zollar Store. Additionally, Zappos employees can reward each other’s outstanding contributions with a $50 coworker bonus once per calendar month. And at UC Berkeley, employees may nominate an IT employee to receive a thank you card and a $25 gift card as part of an IT Appreciation Program. Ideally, the gratitude practices your organization adopts will map onto preexisting norms and values in some way.

Dial down entitlement and dial up perspective taking.

Our research suggests that perspective taking — or the ability to imagine how things are experienced from another’s point of view — is one way leaders can come to appreciate the contributions of others. Indeed, perspective taking is inversely associated with feelings of entitlement and has been shown to improve the closeness of relationships. Furthermore, researchers have documented a direct link from perspective taking to gratitude expression at work.

To increase empathy and perspective taking, consider mentoring junior employees — especially those from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, virtual reality (VR) training programs may pay dividends when it comes to increasing perspective taking and inducing gratitude. For example, platforms like Talespin’s CoPilot Designer offer dynamic conversational learning content that could conceivably be customized to expose managers to scenarios to express gratitude that they may typically overlook in their daily work.

Gratitude Recommendations When You (or Your Colleagues) Are Feeling Underappreciated

Reconnect through unexpected expressions of gratitude.

You don’t have to wait for your current boss to offer a “thank you” in order to tap into the benefits of gratitude. In fact, re-connecting with someone you after a long delay to express gratitude can be incredibly impactful. So, send a thank-you note to an old boss, coworker, or teacher. Thank mentors and other people with whom you have or had a meaningful professional relationship. Not only will this make them more invested in you, but research shows that re-activating dormant ties in this way is a great networking tool.

For example, researchers asked 200 executives to seek advice about an ongoing work challenge from professional contacts they had not communicated with in at least three years. After receiving the advice, the executives then rated how novel and helpful the advice from these past contacts was, as well as how novel and helpful the advice they received from two current contacts was. Interestingly, the executives rated the advice from the dormant ties as more novel and valuable than the advice from the current ties.

Amplify the contributions of low-power employees.

Low-ranking employees may be hesitant to seek recognition for their own contributions. This is problematic because their contributions are often unintentionally overlooked or, worse, nefariously claimed by a supervisor. Publicly amplifying the contributions of low-ranking employees will force higher-power people to “see” them and may help low-ranking employees receive the recognition they deserve.

Research also shows that employees can help peers get a status boost while also raising their own status by publicly acknowledging another person’s contribution. If you work with an egocentric boss who is especially reluctant to cede recognition, then consider amplifying the contributions of lower-power employees in a way that also recognizes a positive contribution of the boss, too. During a team meeting, you could publicly state, “Under Lynn’s effective leadership, Michael thrived in these ways.” Packaging gratitude expressions to recognize people at different levels of the hierarchy may sufficiently stroke the higher-power person’s ego while also meeting the lower-power person’s desire for recognition.

Ultimately, though, our message is for leaders: Don’t assume that your employees or coworkers know how much you appreciate their strong work ethic or specific contributions to a project. Communicate those feelings with gratitude. After all, everyone benefits when genuine feelings and expressions of gratitude are flowing through an organization.





Credit byHarvard Business Review

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