How I used a gratitude intervention to change company culture

It’s hard to maintain healthy morale while boosting productivity. Sure, you could invest in team-building training, but there’s an easier way for managers to build a high-performing work environment: stage a culture-of-gratitude intervention.

A recent Harvard Business Review study demonstrated how companies can foster a more harmonious work environment — while inspiring employees to work harder and smarter — by staging “gratitude interventions.” I tried it and noticed a distinct shift in the company culture.

How I organized the intervention

The idea came about when I worked for LegalZoom, an online legal services company. The organization prided itself on an innovative culture in which each employee counted. But it was always looking for ways to improve its work environment.

I participated in a public-speaking class held by our company’s development team. In one of my speeches, I chose to talk about gratitude, which had become an essential practice for me in my personal and professional life.

The speech inspired leadership to allow us to form a “gratitude team” of employees to brainstorm ways to inject gratitude into the company’s culture. We decided to make a company-wide push for gratitude in November since it includes Thanksgiving. We would celebrate the holiday and emphasize the importance of gratitude. This celebration included email blasts about the importance of gratitude and a bulletin board that included facts about the benefits of being thankful, among other things.

Along with the November celebration, we decided to create an avenue through which any employee could express appreciation for a coworker using strategically placed boxes around the campus. A person could go to the box, pick up a “gratitude card,” and write a short note in which they said, “thank you” to one of their coworkers. We set aside one day to distribute the cards to the employees who earned the praise.

Everyone loved it.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. It became an integral part of the company’s workplace and is still being used to this day. Many noted that it made for a positive workplace and boosted morale and productivity. While it was not possible to measure the growth in productivity, employees reported feeling more appreciated. And they said that they experienced a much better work environment. But LegalZoom is not the only company that put this type of program in place.

Which companies have tried It?

Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps, makes it a point to thank his employees weekly. 

“We have an all-hands meeting once a week, and we finish the meeting by ‘giving props,’ which is recognizing people on the team for their accomplishments that week,” he told Thrive Global. “Anyone on the team can give props to anyone else on the team, which fosters an atmosphere of appreciation and teamwork.”

He gave an example in which one employee might observe that a coworker is handling a difficult problem effectively and “give props” to that individual in front of the group. This means they would publicly compliment the employee in front of the rest of the staff. “It’s a great way to be thankful and show appreciation as a group for all the accomplishments of the week, and make sure everyone gets recognized for their contributions,” Benson added.

At a New Zealand company called Glitch, employees are given small kiwi statues to celebrate the anniversary of each employee; the bird is the company’s mascot. And in town hall meetings, employees give public acknowledgments of individual accomplishments. This custom is known as giving “kiwi bravos.”

Karl Sun, co-founder and CEO of Lucid also practices gratitude in his company, which develops visual collaboration software. In a piece written for Forbes, he provided a valuable tip and explained how it works at Lucid. 

“Make it specific,” he says. “Try to avoid blanket expressions of gratitude—say thank you for something specific. Here at Lucid, we are big fans of diagrams. This year, we created a company-wide gratitude flowchart as a gift for employees. It contains a personal note of gratitude for every single employee from their manager. Each note contains specifics on what that employee contributes to Lucid. Calling out the specifics means so much more.”

Why focus on gratitude?

Gratitude is an effective way to cultivate a healthier and more pleasant work environment — and to retain employees. A study published in Frontiers In Psychology pointed out that “in organizations, gratitude is now thought to be crucial to employees’ efficiency, success, and productivity while also improving organizational citizenship behaviors, prosocial organizational behavior, and the organizational climate.”

In the Harvard Business Review, Lauren R. Locklear, Shannon G. Taylor, and Maureen L. Ambrose discussed the problem of uncivil behavior in the workplace and pointed out that “when we lose sight of the positive and focus on the negative, we’re more likely to treat our colleagues poorly; we might insult them, talk about them behind their backs, and ignore or exclude them.”

In order to address the problem of incivility, the authors conducted a study in which they staged “gratitude interventions” to ascertain how they could help companies struggling to maintain a positive work environment.

The solution: Staging gratitude interventions.

As the authors wrote: “Research in this area also shows that people can purposefully cultivate feelings of gratitude with simple interventions. One involves forming ‘gratitude groups,’ in which participants attend sessions to discuss, write about, and practice expressing gratitude with role-playing activities. Another involves writing a thank-you letter to someone and then reading it aloud to them.”

The researchers explained that their study was designed to test the theory that “a gratitude intervention might reduce uncivil behavior in organizations.” 

In the study, researchers enlisted 147 volunteers working in various industries and positions. Participants were asked to keep a journal chronicling their workdays for two weeks.

Each participant was assigned one of two conditions. Those who were assigned the gratitude condition were told to write about things for which they were grateful. They wrote about people or circumstances that made a positive impact on their workdays. The control group was instructed to simply record the events of their days. 

After looking at the data, the researchers found that those who wrote in a gratitude journal daily showed a decrease in workplace rudeness. A repetition of the study yielded similar results. 

Fostering a positive work environment is essential to any business. But it’s critical for managers seeking to maintain their team’s productivity. This is especially true for those who wish to move up to higher managerial positions. The bottom line is that if you are going to earn that promotion, you must have a team that outperforms your peers — and mandating gratitude can help you get there.