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Part 1: The Difference Between Gratitude and Thankfulness

March 23, 2022

March 4 was Employee Appreciation Day — it’s an annual recognition event introduced in 1995 that occurs the first Friday in March every year.

While the sentiment behind the date and the recognition is well intended, employers should be showing appreciation for their employees every day — not just one day of the year. The annual event offers a good opportunity to make an important distinction between gratitude and thankfulness — one being an event (thankfulness) and the other an ongoing process (gratitude).

What is Thankfulness?

Thankfulness is related to gratitude and may be an expression of gratitude, but thankfulness is more of an event — responding to some action or effort, in this case, employee effort. Thankfulness, is, of course, important. The point here, though, is that when we’re hoping to create an environment and culture that is engaging for employees, we need to think more broadly.

Yes, of course, we need to thank employees for their specific efforts. At a higher level, though, we need to create an environment where they feel our gratitude for their efforts on a continuous basis.

That’s why — although, again, obviously created for very good reasons — episodic events like Employee Appreciation Day simply aren’t enough. And unfortunately, there are likely organizations that think that focusing on this one day is enough to create an environment of gratitude.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude can be thought of as an overall positive feeling that results from a series of experiences and interactions with others. It can be distinguished from thankfulness in at least six ways:

  • It occurs over time. Being grateful is a way of life, or a state of being. In terms of our relationships with employees, it’s something they should experience on an ongoing basis — not just once a year. The consistency and frequency of thankfulness develops an attitude of gratitude.
  • It doesn’t require being physically present. Because gratitude is an overall feeling rather than an experience (like thankfulness), it doesn’t require being physically present to have that gratitude felt. For instance, an employee who feels that they work in a culture where others (e.g., their bosses, senior leaders, etc.) are grateful for them, may experience these feelings when they’re dealing with a difficult customer and know they will be trusted to make the right call.
  • It requires dedication. Again, conveying gratitude to others is a process, not an event. With gratitude, people acknowledge the good in their lives. In the process, people realize that the source of that goodness lives outside themselves. Grateful people often think that every day is a gift!
  • It creates connections. Gratitude unites us with others. Being grateful helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals, and that connection gives purpose.
  • It is reciprocal. When others are grateful for us, we, in turn, are grateful for them. It’s not a “quid pro quo” relationship, but a naturally occurring response that evolves over time as we come to realize that someone cares for and values us. We just naturally, then, feel caring feelings — gratefulness — for them.
  • It is collective. While it’s important for employees to feel that their direct supervisors or managers are grateful for them, the power of gratefulness can expand exponentially across many members of the organization. Employees need to feel gratitude not only from their bosses, but from senior leaders, colleagues and others as well. The more they feel it, the stronger the bond that will be built.
  • It is tenuous. Some years ago, Stephen Covey, the author of the very popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, created the metaphor of an emotional bank account — the value we generate, over time, through our positive relationships with others. Bank accounts, of course, operate through both deposits (positive) and withdrawals (negative). The gratitude that we feel in others can be diminished quickly based on negative or disrespectful actions.

Acts of kindness and service, including recognizing others, helps people see beyond themselves and focus on the goodness of others. In the workplace, this leads to an environment that is positive and engaging, where employees feel valued and are less likely to leave. And there’s evidence to support this claim.

Feeling Valued Builds Better Performance

This study by the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted among 1714 adults by Harris Interactive found that among employees who felt valued, just one in five (21%) indicated that they were likely to look for a new job in the coming year. In addition, the study found that almost “all employees (93%) who reported feeling valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work and 88% reported feeling engaged.” Contrast this to “just 33% and 38%, respectively, of those who said they do not feel valued.”

Positive psychology research continues to show that being grateful does bring about many important rewards. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

In short, being grateful can lead to greater overall happiness and wellbeing.

If you did something this year to celebrate Employee Appreciation Day, don’t stop there! Recognize that celebrating this event once a year is not enough to build gratitude among your employees — or to make them feel that you are grateful for them. Gratitude takes year-round effort and ongoing attention to create a culture of recognition that keeps employees on board, engaged and productive. Let Employee Appreciation Day be the first step of many that will help to build gratitude.

Topics: strategy, culture, employee appreciation