How to Foster a Culture of Gratitude

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan

employees high fiving at a desk

As we head into a new year, we tend to talk more about gratitude. We talk about what we’re grateful for in our own lives, and often express gratitude for the friends, family, and coworkers we have around us.

We’ve tried to foster a culture of “thank you” at ProductPlan. And lately, I’ve thought a lot about what gratitude means for the people we work with. Today, I’d like to share a bit about the role of gratitude at ProductPlan. Hopefully some of these thoughts might help you at your workplace.

I’d like to say that there’s some magical formula for fostering a grateful culture within your organization, but there isn’t. A culture of gratitude, or a culture of thank you doesn’t materialize on its own. Our culture at ProductPlan is the result of consistency in our values and decision-making from the very beginning.

We wanted ProductPlan to be a place where people genuinely enjoy coming to work; a place where people feel that they are contributing towards something important. We wanted our team to see the significant ways they help build great products and we wanted them to enjoy working with our customers and with each other.

Gratitude and appreciation are key to creating the environment we set out to create from the get go. I’ll discuss how we did this shortly, but first let’s look at why. Why does gratitude matter? Why is it something we should all strive for? Let’s see what science has to say.

The Science of Gratitude

To start, what exactly is gratitude anyway? Gratitude, to me, means taking a moment and recognizing the good things that we have and the good things that other people are doing. It sounds easy right?

But if we look closer, there are actually a few different ways in which we interact with gratitude. We can feel grateful, we can express our gratitude, and we can receive expressions of gratitude.

Various studies over the past century or so exploring our different reactions with gratitude have revealed multitudes of benefits of gratitude in the context of both health & wellness and social . For example, feeling grateful not only increases life satisfaction but also one’s willingness to help others. And, the act of taking time to express gratitude is a proven mood-booster.

The Importance of Gratitude at Work

My co-founder Greg and I both have previously worked with enough teams and at enough companies to recognize what it feels like to operate in organizational cultures that lack a sense of appreciation.

It’s not surprising that research shows our perceptions of gratitude in the workplace can be fairly complex. A recent study on US Americans’ relationship with gratitude found the majority of people wish they were thanked more often at work. Meanwhile, that same study found that the office is the place where people are least likely to express gratitude.

So let’s break that down: employees feel that they should be appreciated more, yet don’t feel that they should verbalize their appreciation for others at work. Yikes.

We strive to foster an environment in which everyone not only feels appreciated, but also freely expresses their gratitude to others. Initially, this was the product of our belief in practicing the golden rule “treat others as you’d like to be treated.” But, beyond simply being the right thing to do, we’ve also noticed many other positive benefits of our culture of gratitude.

Gratitude Keeps our Team Motivated

team rowing a boat together

In the office, I see and overhear people doing small things for each other every day; helping them on something, picking up the phone to help someone who is away, volunteering to take on extra work to help out a colleague who already has a full schedule. It’s wonderful to witness this.

It’s exactly the sort of environment that I want to create. We never hear someone say “that’s not my job!” but quite frequently hear “how can I help you out?”

When you’re on the receiving end of an expression of gratitude, you feel appreciated and that your work is being recognized. But beyond those emotions, researchers found that people who are thanked for their efforts are driven to work harder and volunteer to help more in the future.

So if you want to motivate your team, don’t forget to take time every now and then to thank them for their efforts. It doesn’t take much, but your sentiments can go a long way.

Gratitude Improves Relationships and Encourages Collaboration

In addition to keeping our team motivated, gratitude plays a role in promoting better teamwork. Sharing our appreciation with the team has encouraged them to do the same amongst each other. I hear it all the time in the office. And while knowing gratitude is present is reward enough for me, there’s an even bigger upside for the team as a whole.

Gratitude exchanges among colleagues are proven to positively impact prosocial behaviors. Those who feel and express gratitude to colleagues are more motivated to spend time with others and work on improving the relationship. Meanwhile, those who are thanked for their work are often more willing to broaden the scope of the help and support they offer others at work.

Something as simple as hearing a colleague say, “hey, thank you for helping me out with this project,” can promote closer collaboration and teamwork.

Receiving Gratitude Reduces Likelihood of Burnout

We care deeply about the health and wellness of our team at ProductPlan. And that’s another reason gratitude is important for our culture. In addition to motivating and driving collaboration, when people feel appreciated, they are less likely to experience burnout.

Software startups and other fast-paced organizations are notorious for having high rates of burnout amongst employees. We don’t want that, and it turns out gratitude helps. A 2015 study found nurses (one of the professions with the highest burnout rate) who received expressions of thank you from patients were significantly less likely to experience burnout than their peers who did not. This is not surprising. If our work benefits others, we want to know about it and feel valued by them. But what is surprising is how little effort it takes to show people they are valued.

Taking just a few moments out of every day to express your appreciation can make a huge impact on your team’s happiness and employee retention.

Don’t pass up gratitude at work. There’s no doubt that there are countless benefits of gratitude at work. But in fast-paced environments, it can easily slip off the radar. So let’s look at how to avoid that by diving into how exactly we can make gratitude part of the employee experience.

How We’ve Fostered a Culture of Gratitude at ProductPlan

Part of our success in fostering a culture of gratitude is arguably due to our motivations for founding ProductPlan. Greg and I founded ProductPlan because we like to build products and solve problems. We didn’t get into the business of product roadmapping software for ego-based reasons. Of course we saw value in improving product roadmaps, but we founded ProductPlan largely because we saw a fun and interesting opportunity to create something.

But there was more to it than a motivation to have fun and a few well-timed thank yous. Here’s a few of the ways we’ve established and maintained a culture of gratitude at ProductPlan.
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Make Gratitude a Habit

Everybody is busy and everybody has their own experiences. Sometimes we can feel completely overwhelmed at work, and to top it off we all also have personal lives too. When we have all these things going on, it can be hard to come up for air and recognize how good we truly have it.

So, I think it’s important to make gratitude a habit. And by this I mean, making time to step out of yourself to be aware of what’s happening right now. If you’re stressed at work, it can be as simple as remembering that you have a job to stress you out in the first place. And beyond that, there are most likely other people around you going through the exact same thing that you are. Why not be grateful and appreciative of them?

Get in the habit of taking moments of time to yourself for gratitude. Step away from the chaos for a moment, and you’ll give yourself a better opportunity to recognize the good things happening. You don’t necessarily have to start a gratitude journal or meditate to do this, the separation alone is often enough to get you thinking. I like to go for walks around the block; getting a little exercise and breathing fresh air helps me remember and appreciate the good things.

Sometimes it’s hard to get the blocks of time for this habit. What works for me is making it part of my daily routine. There’s this tendency for many people to sit there and work while eating lunch at their desks. And that’s ok, but I still think it’s important to take breaks to get you outside and into a different headspace. That’s why I love to take advantage of my lunch break for this.

Pay it Forward

“Actions speak louder than words” they say. And that applies to gratitude in some ways as well. Leadership plays a significant role in an organization’s relationship to gratitude.

My first job was a very typical corporate job where you walked in and there were rows upon rows of desks. I was just out of college and eager to learn. Productivity was of the utmost importance at this organization, so I worked hard. Certainly people said “thank you,” here and there, but I see now that something critical was missing: the culture didn’t value people or support helping them grow.

I, like many others, was simply a cog in the wheel of this 40,000 person company. My career and happiness did not matter to them. I think everyone with enough years in the workforce has been somewhere like this. Even in larger organizations, a lot of this culture has to do with management and how they approach things. It is possible to foster this culture at a large organization if management consciously commits to it.

For us, it’s common sense: our team’s success is directly correlated with our own. We truly value each individual on our team. After all, we couldn’t possibly be successful without them! So, management is on board to support every member of the team in not only getting the experience they want, but also in general being happy in their career (even if this means eventually they’ll take their talents to somewhere other than ProductPlan). This is just one way we put gratitude into action here.

Hire the Right People

As we’ve grown, we’ve hired a lot. And we look well beyond talent and experience when we hire. A big part of building our culture is hiring genuinely kind people who share our values. For us gratitude is not a tactic, it’s a philosophy. It’s the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.

“Thank you” should not come with ulterior motives. We don’t express gratitude because we want somebody to do something. This sort of manipulative pseudo-gratitude isn’t how we operate here. We say thank you because we genuinely care and want the people around us to be successful. And we hire people who bring that same philosophy with them to work.

But how do you make hiring decisions that help us continue driving this culture? It can be tricky to suss this out completely during the interview process. Sometimes the version of someone you meet in an interview is not the same as the one who comes into the office on the first day. And, I’d be lying if I said we’ve never made a mistake there.

For the most part, we have been incredibly fortunate. It seems that we somehow attract people with similar values. In addition, Santa Barbara is somewhat of a small town and because of that, we’ve been able to hire and work with many people with whom we’ve previously worked. That history counts for a lot because we know who they are and the philosophies they bring to work.

Of course, we can’t always hire someone we’ve worked with before. For key hires it’s really important for us to understand their past history. And that’s where references become incredibly helpful. When we talk with references, we look beyond experience. It’s important for us to understand who someone is as a human, too.

Practice Patience

Finally, there are some days when it’s easier to feel gratitude than others. For example, sometimes people can frustrate you. Perhaps it’s because they’ve disappointed you, or they’re not reaching their full potential or meeting their goals. I think that taking a deep breath and finding the gratitude and the good things that you see in other people helps a lot with patience. And patience is an important part of gratitude.

Thank You.

To wrap things up, I’ll leave you with this: it’s never too late to start being grateful. I know I’ve mentioned many times that what we have is the product of long-term efforts. But, you too can drive a shift in your organization toward a culture of thank you. Here’s a few things you can do starting today.

photo of a journal that says "today I am grateful"