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How Gratitude Works for Organizations

Hear the ways gratitude practices can create positive changes for employees and work cultures from Kim Cameron.
<v ->So my name is Kim Cameron and I’m on the faculty</v> at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. And I’m grateful to have an opportunity to talk about a topic that’s very interesting to me, for several reasons. One is because this topic of gratitude has big impact on individual health as well as on organization performance. It’s part of my own research for the last 20 years or so. As it turns out with regard to individuals, simply practicing gratitude has a big impact on physiological functioning. For example, in one study, they simply asked individuals to contemplate, ponder what they were grateful for, a positive kind of atmosphere.
The other half of these people were asked to ponder or contemplate just a neutral or negative, something they were fearful of or angry about. And they simply did a scan of their brain called a pet scan. They discovered that those in that gratitude condition had more areas of their brain activated and of those activated, they were activated to a greater extent. Well, how does this play out in organizations? Turns out it has big impact in organization performance. The reason that’s important is frequently, I will hear senior executives say something like this; look Cameron, it would be nice to spend time on touchy-feely, soupy-syrupy, saccharin-sweet gratitude practices. And happy-clappy, I heard that phrase the other day.
I mean look, it would be nice but frankly, I’ve got bottom line results I have to pay attention to. I mean, I got stock price, I got profitability goals. I got sales targets, I mean I just don’t have time to do all this positivity stuff. Certainly not just be happy and gratitude, focused on gratitude all the time. It turns out we’ve done research, others have done research and there has been major impact of gratitude practices on bottom line performance. For example, I know some organizations that have between 10 and 20,000 employees, every single employee is handed a gratitude journal.
Every employee in that organization’s keeping a gratitude journal and in one particular case, they went from $70 million in the red to $20 million in the black in one year, after having implemented that practice. Now it’s not the only thing that changed but it was one of the things that helped the whole culture of the organization change. The CEO of LG, the big Korean conglomerate came over and spent a week with us, learned about gratitude practices and other positive practices. Went back home, asked his secretary to put on his desk every day, five cards. On one side of the card was printed, thank you. On the other side was blank.
He simply assigned himself on the back of that card to write five thank you notes, contribution to other people’s enjoyment. Five of those knowing notes every single day. Now that was probably 10 years ago. I saw him a year or two ago and I asked him; are you still doing that? And he said; oh absolutely, it’s changed my whole organization because we’re so focused on issues and problems and difficulties, challenges. I force myself out of that mindset once a day and write five cards. He said it’s changed the whole culture of the top end of our organization. That’s a very successful organization. I mean, the CEO is practicing gratitude once a day.
That kind of thing has occurred to me many times in my own life. I’m a member of the Center for Positive Organizations, faculty member, one of the founders as it turns out, many many years ago. One of the most gratifying things for me is the thanks I get from my colleagues. Now, I’m not nearly the chief contributor in this organization but boy, I go to a meeting. We start every meeting, every single meeting in our research center as well as in our academic department by simply going around the room and we simply ask people to identify what’s the best thing that’s happened in last two weeks or week or month.
That is, what should we be grateful for or what are you grateful for? It injects a certain amount of positive energy in every single meeting. And by the way, I don’t know anybody who says; oh man, I got to go to another meeting. In fact, people want to go to meetings. I had an email the other day saying; gee, we need another meeting. It feels like we haven’t gotten together for a long time. And one of the reasons for that is simply the positive energy that gets injected into the meetings by starting with gratitude practices. Now, there are all kinds of pressures right now. we’re in the pandemic. We are having a tremendous amount of justice and racial tension occur.
There are multiple issues right in the middle of a big election, where constant caustic contention is just permeating. And often the reaction to that is look; you’re just trying to force me to be happy, put a smile on my face. I frankly don’t feel like being happy. I mean, if I’m mourning the loss of a loved one, mandating positivity is not very helpful frankly. In fact, National Labor Relations Board sued T-Mobile in their employee manual where it said; we need to create a positive atmosphere. And they said, no, you cannot mandate positivity. You cannot mandate that people ought to be grateful. Sure enough, that’s exactly the right thing to do.
On the other hand, one of the things our research has shown is that virtuous practices, not happy-ology, not just smiley-face, not soupy-syrupy put on a happy face but rather virtuous practices like for example, expressing gratitude, counting your own blessings or expressing gratitude to somebody else. Generosity, your generosity of spirit, which is similar to gratitude. Compassion when people are struggling or suffering. That is, virtuousness actually has the opposite effect. Instead of just being happy-ology, it rather has a big impact on turning around the perspective and the performance of individuals. In fact, we have been doing research for many years assessing the impact of these practices on organization performance.
See if I’m grateful only in order to get something I want, well, it’s not gratitude anymore, it’s manipulation. If I’m kind to Molly only to get what I want, it’s not kindness for heaven’s sake. So I don’t need a payback. I don’t need an impact from being grateful, being kind, being generous. But as it turns out, there is a payback nevertheless. So this research, over 20 year or so research, in a whole bunch of different conditions. If you practice what we refer to as the virtuous practices including gratitude, the research is very clear. Profitability goes up, productivity goes up, quality goes up, innovation goes up, customer satisfaction goes up, employee engagement, employee retention goes up. That is, you’re held accountable.
Leaders are held accountable for those results. So I don’t need those results in order to have those virtuous practices be part to me in order to express gratitude because it impacts physiological health and impacts relationships and so on. But as it turns out, there is an impact on what people are held accountable for in organizations. I mean, I can’t think of a single reason why I would not wanna practice gratitude in my life or in my organization. Thanks for listening.

You’ve heard that gratitude can help individuals and relationships, but it can also make positive impacts in organizations.

Hear the ways gratitude practices can create positive changes for employees and work cultures from Kim Cameron, a founding member of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan and longtime gratitude researcher.

Dr. Cameron mentions that we can sometimes resist gratitude practices because we may not see it as serious or important, especially in work settings. Have you felt this way?
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