Attitude of gratitude promotes workplace success

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

Think back for a moment to high school or college, when you likely learned about the marshmallow tests — a series of experiments conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford starting in the 1960s.

Not ringing a bell? Here’s a refresher. Children were given a choice between eating one marshmallow right away or waiting several minutes while the researcher left the room to earn two marshmallows later. In follow-up studies, researchers found a high correlation between the children who waited patiently for the second marshmallow and such positive life outcomes as greater academic achievement, higher earnings and lower body weight compared to those who gave into temptation.

Delayed gratification constitutes a hallmark of goal setting that requires us to prioritize the needs of our future selves over our wants in the moment. Our hope for long-term health must matter more than the box of cookies or third glass of wine we want now. Our desire for financial
well-being must outweigh our impulse to buy that new car. Our commitment to long-lasting relationships must command our attention more intensely than our smartphones.

While the ability to delay gratification undoubtedly increases our chances of finding success in life, the marshmallow experiments have been used to suggest the key lies in willpower and the degree to which willpower is baked into our personality at an early age. Although this might be partially true, it’s also true willpower isn’t the only tool in our self-control toolbox. Recent studies led by David DeSteno at Northeastern University have shown such prosocial emotions as gratitude, compassion and authentic pride prime us to effortlessly factor in the effects our choices will have on others as well as our future selves. When shined and sharpened, these emotional tools tap into our biological need to connect with others and help us make short-term sacrifices in favor of long-term benefits.

In DeSteno’s adult version of the marshmallow test, participants were primed to feel either grateful, happy or neutral. They were then asked to make several choices that involved getting something small immediately or something twice as big later. DeSteno’s team found that those primed with gratitude almost doubled their level of self-control compared to those who were primed to feel happy or neutral. Other studies led by DeSteno underscore these results by demonstrating a connection between daily gratitude practices and increased patience and self-control. Unlike willpower, which drains our mental resources, prosocial emotions enhance our energy over time.

As we spend more and more time at work, it’s clear the workplace offers the perfect landscape to be tilled for cultivating self-control and helping employees achieve professional and personal goals. Moreover, empowering our teams with gratitude, compassion and authentic pride requires little effort or expense.

Here are a few suggestions to consider:

Weave gratitude and appreciation into your culture. Lead by example by quickly thanking employees for the work they do, demonstrating patience and understanding and praising people for specific contributions rather than using blanket statements about how great they are. Train managers and supervisors on how to offer gratitude and praise in effective ways.

Provide opportunities at work for expressions of gratitude and appreciation. A 2012 John Templeton Foundation survey showed that while 90 percent of people describe themselves as grateful, only 52 percent of women and 44 percent of men express gratitude on a regular basis. The same survey found people are even less likely to express gratitude at work. With a little creativity, we can make this easier. Create a gratitude board on which people can post notes about what they’re grateful. Add an appreciation platform — like the kudos webpage launched by the administration office of the University of California Berkeley — to your internal company website that allows employees to recognize each other’s contributions. Follow the lead of Hilltop’s Montrose office by creating “praise pockets” — small envelopes with everyone’s names on them that hang in the breakroom for people to drop in kind comments for each other.

Launch a gratitude journaling challenge. Provide gratitude journals or a simple notebook to your employees and encourage them to record three different things they’re grateful for each day for two weeks. To foster a sense of authentic pride, you also could ask participants to record at least one thing they feel they’ve done well each day.

No matter which ideas you try, it’s time to think beyond marshmallows and test the effectiveness of prosocial emotions in your workplace as a means to promote long-term goals and success. Your employees’ future selves —and your future business — will thank you for it.