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Holidays are on my mind, and COVID is making celebrations harder. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

I’m thinking more about gratitude and trying to remind myself of the importance, both at home and at work. We’re all human. Our workforces and project teams are comprised of humans. And humans have good days and bad days. They have times when life is harder than others. Right now, life feels hard for many. So, I offer eight ways to build gratitude at work.

But first, let me offer some thoughts on the research behind gratitude. Most of the studies that I’ve scanned relate to individual acts of gratitude. The growing body of research suggests that gratitude can positively boost happiness, health, and workplace performance. And since I write about business performance, I’ll comment briefly on the workplace research.

The Research Behind Gratitude at Work

Ryan Fehr coordinated a research study that was published online by the Academy of Management Review in 2016, titled The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations. In this study, the team put forth a model that included building gratitude at the organizational level, the event level, and the individual level. The study notes the concerns about organizations that foster selfishness, entitlement, greed, and egocentrism. And goes on to discuss the risks that employees become cynical or immune, especially when acts of gratitude seem disingenuous. But overwhelmingly, the study notes the positive benefits of cultivating a grateful work environment.

Additionally, there was a 2006 study, coordinated by Lynne M. Andersson, of Temple University, published in the Journal of Business Ethics that found that “feelings of hope and gratitude increase concern for corporate social responsibility (CSR). In particular, employees with stronger hope and gratitude were found to have a greater sense of responsibility toward employee and societal issues; interestingly, employee hope and gratitude did not affect sense of responsibility toward economic and safety/quality issues.”

8 Ways to Build Gratitude at Work

1. Create an awareness of the need for gratitude at work in your value system.

For gratitude to have the most beneficial impact to the organization, a focus on gratitude begins with the company’s value system. There can be problems when your value system promotes individual accomplishments at the expense of team performance. You run the risk of setting up a competitive workplace that breeds egocentrism and greed. This is especially true if your compensation system is set up to reward individual accomplishments.

2. Keep project visions front and center. 

Much of the work that I have read focuses on the fact that gratitude at work forces us to focus on something bigger than ourselves. This helps teams become more grateful. So, have you created that clear and compelling vision statement for each project, and are you keeping it front and center?

3. Set your project up for success to build gratitude at work.

I’ve written about this a great deal. The Smart Projex methodology is all about techniques that increase your chance of success. Here’s a recent blog on creating a work breakdown structure that will supercharge your project. The benefits of thinking this way when you break your project down are many. You build in times where you can celebrate success, offer thanks, deliver results to your client, and get feedback. Again, work is about something bigger than ourselves.

4. Commit to finishing the activities that have the highest value for your clients. 

As you execute a project, you will need to choose which activities to work on over time. Sometimes, your choice will be driven by what is needed next on the project – in order to accomplish the scope. Sometimes, you simply can’t accomplish a particular activity until you have done another activity.

In other cases, you will have a list of activities that could all be done next, such as a list of software features that you want to build. When that is the case, can you choose the ones that have the highest value for your client?

And regardless of which activities you choose to focus on next, commit to finishing them. This is where limiting the work-in-progress can help your focus. Don’t take on five activities when you can only finish one or two during the next sprint.

5. Use time blocking for negative and hard conversations. 

Sooner or later, every team and every project leader will face a hard conversation. Sometimes, it’s going to be a critique of someone’s performance. Sometimes, it’s just a difficult decision with large stakeholder complications. Don’t avoid these conversations. Problems need to be resolved. Decisions have to be made. We need to listen to others express their disappointment, dissatisfaction, unease, sadness, or anger. As a project manager, I often feel like I spend more time listening to those conversations than anything else I do.

But they can be a time suck. And they can get you down. And so, I try to time block the conversations. I say, from the outset, something like: I know we are both busy, but this is important. I want to know what you are thinking and feeling. You are important to the work that this team does. I need to understand whether you just need me to listen or whether you need help figuring out an action plan. We have until _ o’clock to talk, and if we need to schedule more time, we can do that tomorrow.

Sometimes people just need to express their thoughts in a safe space. And then, they can often go and sleep on it and be better the next day. They don’t really need your help figuring out anything. And, when possible, I try to schedule these conversations later in the day if I think they will interfere with my focus afterwards.

6. Remind your teammates to choose gratitude at work.

Especially, when you get to the end of a difficult conversation, remind everyone that gratitude at work is a choice. We can choose to be grateful. Sometimes, we need to choose whether we want to live in anger, sadness, or joy. Sometimes, we might want to help our teammates find something to be grateful for. Perhaps this is a time to frame the suggestion as a question.

Whether we are grateful for the pain of arthritis, which reminds us that we are still alive, or the joy of a new relationship, there is always something that we can be grateful for.

7. Offer your teammates grace and insist on accountability.

We all need a little grace, space, and forgiveness. But we need to hold each other accountable for the work that is important. Yes, some things can slide sometimes or be handed off to someone else. Some things probably don’t even need to be done. But we’re at work for a reason. Yes, not everything is urgent. But the important work must be done. And I am referring to those commitments that the team makes in its periodic Checkpoint meetings that I have discussed.

Just like sick moms don’t get to stop feeding their young kids, workers have a responsibility to their employers.

8. Publicly thank team members when they successfully deliver completed work to the client.

There are plenty of times during the course of a project when teams work very hard for days and weeks at a time. And that is not to be under appreciated. But we need to focus on delivering results to the client (or the management team). Then, we can really celebrate that accomplishment and express gratitude.

Work is important, but we have to be careful that we don’t get so consumed by working on something that we never finish it. This is why, when I coach teams on planning a project, I encourage them to set it up with activities that can be finished and delivered to the client. Teams need to resist working on long batches of work where there is no meaningful feedback to ensure that the team is on the right path.

I’d love to know the experiences that others are having if they are seeking to build gratitude at work. Have something to share? OR, want to sign up for my newsletter?


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