A Sense of Appreciation Is the Single Most Sustainable Motivator at Work

jade_schulz_leo_oscar_-bear_766

Illustration by Jade Schulz.

Work can be a thankless task—literally. Despite the fact that most of us probably spend more time with our co-workers than anyone else—even partners, spouses, and families—they remain the people to whom we are least likely to express our appreciation.


A survey of about 2,000 Americans revealed that while 50% of people express gratitude to their immediate family on a daily basis, only 15% of people do so with their colleagues. In fact, the workplace ranked as the very last place where people are regularly inclined to say thank you. (Even mail carriers ranked higher.) This is particularly befuddling because almost all of the survey respondents expressed a strong desire to have their co-workers say “thank you” to them more often.

In other words: Most people are bad at expressing appreciation to their co-workers even though they themselves crave more acknowledgment of their efforts.

And yet gratitude, as most of us intuitively know, is clearly an unadulterated good. In another study, people who were explicitly thanked for their work by a manager, or even a distant supervisor, were found to be 50% more productive afterwards.

As Adam Grant, author of the bestselling book Give and Take, says, “A sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work.” While we quickly get used to the typical forms of workplace recognition—a higher salary, a better job title—and begin to take them for granted, appreciation is different. When someone recognizes our work as meaningful and valuable, it’s intrinsically motivating. And that’s the kind of motivation that lasts.

While we quickly get used to the typical forms of workplace recognition—a higher salary, a better job title—and begin to take them for granted, appreciation is different.

But gratitude is a two-way street. It’s not just bosses that should be thanking their employees, it’s also important for up-and-comers—and all of us really—to acknowledge the help of anyone who gives us a leg up. Another gratitude experiment that Adam Grant and Francesca Gino conducted found that when you thank someone for their help, it makes them more likely to help again in the future.

In this particular study, people were paid to give students feedback about their cover letters, which they shared via email. The first group of students were told to send back a simple message acknowledging their receipt of the feedback once it was received. The second group of students were directed to send back an email that expressed gratitude, saying they were really grateful for the feedback on their cover letters.

Later, the researchers had those same students email the reviewers asking them to give feedback on a second cover letter. It turned out that the reviewers who had received an appreciative note were twice as likely to help the student again. What’s more, they were twice as likely to help any student, not just the one that they had interacted with before.

So saying “thank you” isn’t just good for you, it’s good for everyone. If we thank someone for being generous with their time now, they are significantly more likely to be generous with their time later.

dwight

And guess what? Being generous with your time has its own benefits. Spending time helping others actually makes you feel like you have more time. Here’s what Cassie Mogilner, who conducted a study about the counter-intuitive effects of giving away your time says about her unusual experiment:

My colleagues and I found that people who wrote notes to sick children or devoted a bit of time on a Saturday morning to helping another person were more likely than other study subjects to say their futures felt ‘infinite.’… People who give time feel more capable, confident, and useful…They feel more effective, and that enhances their productivity.

Of course our time isn’t actually infinite. Which is why Mogilner recommends trying to use breaks or downtime that you would normally waste in less meaningful ways to instead help others. Maybe you step out of the office to grab a coffee with a co-worker who needs a pep talk, or perhaps you forgo your afternoon Twitter fix to instead email a colleague and share a connection that’s likely to aid in their job hunt. Aside from being deeply rewarding on its own terms, showing your appreciation by helping your colleagues will also help you be more relaxed and effective.

Aside from being deeply rewarding on its own terms, showing your appreciation by helping your colleagues will also help you be more relaxed and effective.

Sharing gratitude also has a compounding effect. The afterglow of expressing appreciation—of being generous with your praise, or time, or money—can last weeks or even months after the occasion. Science writer Christian Jarrett recaps the results of a recent gratitude study in a piece for New York magazine:

The more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mind-set — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude “muscle” that can be exercised and strengthened. If this is right, the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future. It also potentially helps explain another established finding, that gratitude can spiral: The more thankful we feel, the more likely we are to act pro-socially toward others, causing them to feel grateful and setting up a beautiful virtuous cascade.

Spontaneity is key when it comes to gratitude. Appreciation should always be a special occasion. That doesn’t mean an infrequent occasion, but rather something that feels natural, not scheduled. Here are a few approaches that I’ve experienced personally:

  • Get some intel and give a super-personalized work bonus. In the early startup days of Behance, when I wasn’t making that much money, my boss Scott Belsky found out what my favorite restaurant was and gave me a gift card for a nice dinner to express his appreciation for my hard work. The actual cost of the gift wasn’t high, but the thoughtfulness of the appreciation made more of an impact than something more expensive ever could.
  • Write an open thank you letter to the people that helped you in your career. My former 99U colleague Sean Blanda wrote an absolutely beautiful appreciation piece on Medium called “I Had Help” in which he enumerates the many helping hands he had in his career. Aside from the fact that I learned a ton about him in the article, I was also incredibly honored to be thanked. Previously, I had no idea what an impact our working relationship had had on him. And I still get a little choked up when I read it!
  • Give someone a gift of appreciation for no reason at all. Once when I was having lunch with the fantastic designer James Victore, he mentioned a Rumi poem to me in the course of conversation. A few weeks later I received a copy of The Essential Rumi in the mail. It was a lovely and utterly unexpected surprise. And one that later motivated me to send out-of-the-blue book gifts to two different work colleagues after we had discussed them. Small acts of gratitude tend to have a ripple effect.
  • Extend your appreciation to the people who helped you get to a pivotal moment. I took inventory of the past few years, my descent into burnout as an ambitious over-achiever, and my subsequent recovery in a recent piece called Check Yourself or Wreck Yourself. In it, I enumerate the many healers who helped me along the way. It seemed like the natural choice afterwards to privately extend my thanks to each one, to let them know just how much of an impact they had made on my life. Sharing my gratitude with them—and reconnecting—was by far the best part of my week.
  • Thank someone behind the scenes, and show them that their work is seen. For six years I curated the 99U Conference and oversaw every detail of production. It was my baby. Early on, however, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with public speaking so I wasn’t onstage at the event. As a result, I think attendees were less aware of my role in making the conference happen. But when John Maeda came onstage in 2014, he made a point of explicitly thanking me, and acknowledging my efforts, before he began his talk (which you should definitely go watch). It was a passing moment for the audience, but it was a deeply meaningful moment for me.

People like to know that they made an impact, that their efforts were meaningful, that you noticed. Tell them.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.


I have a new book out about how to tame your inbox and reclaim your focus. And starting this Fall, I’ll be hosting Hurry Slowly, a new podcast about how you can be more productive by slowing down.

Send this to a friend