Can a business be grateful? Insights from the science of gratitude

A colleague of mine runs a consulting business, called Behaviorly, where she applies findings from behavioral economics to help improve how other businesses are run.  For instance, how bonuses are paid out can change how responsive employees are to the incentive.  We have been exchanging emails and I began wondering if I can apply the science of gratitude to helping businesses as well.  That is where this post came from, and I have been honored to guest-blog on the Behaviorly blog as well–so you can read this in two places!

But why gratitude? Research has linked positive emotions like gratitude to increased life expectancy, and increased resilience to trauma. The emerging science of gratitude has revealed powerful benefits for individuals, but there are also huge opportunities in the business world to apply the science of gratitude to just about any venture. Here, I offer a few pointers drawn from the science of gratitude that can be applied to helping improve and enhance the culture and operation of any business.

  1. Do not tell people to feel grateful.

Everyone agrees gratitude is the number one emotion…for other people to feel toward us. When we strive to benefit another person for the purpose of making them feel grateful, we will often fail, and in so doing will create resentment. Research has shown the intention behind a gift is a large predictor of feelings of gratitude (as you might expect). However, most of the time, we can sense when a gift is not given with a good intention—even if it is an expensive gift. Gifts given with the imposition that we should feel grateful are likewise seen as manipulative. Suffice it to say that the worst way to induce gratitude in people is to tell them to feel grateful, or to go out of your way to remind them of all the hard work you did to provide them a gift. “Free” gifts often backfire for this reason. The second that a customer thinks that you are trying to make them feel grateful for the sake of manipulating their gratitude is the second that they will find ways to leave your business. Don’t set out with the goal to “make people grateful;” do good work and people will feel grateful on their own.

  1. Focus on providing a needed benefit.

Imagine gratitude as emerging when people receive a gift that comes at some effort, and that fulfills a need. In my research, I have found that need is a better predictor of gratitude than effort. So while we all know that “it’s the thought that counts,” the first thing you should do if you want to inspire gratitude is to focus on what people need. If I spend all day cooking an all-beef barbecue for a vegan friend, I doubt they will feel much gratitude. Compare that to how they would feel if I perfectly addressed their needs with some handmade veggie burgers or grilled vegetables. It feels differently, doesn’t it? If you want to make a product or design an experience that makes people feel grateful, make your product fulfill a need. Their needs may be to feel psychologically comforted—which can certainly be addressed by your kind effort, but more likely they are looking for a high quality product that fulfills some purpose, and is effective at doing so. Gratitude will be the result of interacting with a quality product, not of reminding people how hard you worked to provide it.

  1. Be genuinely generous.

Find ways to give valuable things away—and your paid product is not the only valuable thing in your company. In many ways, your product is your least valuable thing. Your time is valuable, your care and attention to detail are valuable, and the emotional experience you provide to your clients is valuable. Running a business is tough, the struggle is constant to stay on top of your expenses, keep the competition at bay, and hopefully make a living on top of that. The only people who really help you with the struggle are your customers. They are your only hope to stay in business. In other words, you should recognize that it is your customers that fulfill your most important needs! There is a wonderful wine shop down the street from my house, and I spend a fortune there. It is because they take care of everyone that comes in there, they pour a little heavy on the tastings, they encourage you to eat all the delicious cheeses, they give away tickets to events to regular customers. This is a Zen puzzle that we must resolve: to stay in business, you need to give something valuable away for free.

  1. Make your employees grateful

If your customers are the first thing keeping you in business, your employees are the second. The relationship we have with those that work for us is a finicky one. By its nature, we are treating them as a means to an end, and thus we are at some level using them to help achieve our goals. But it doesn’t have to be like this—in fact you will have a more grateful business when you recognize your employees as important assets, or even more like your own customers. The same rules thus apply: give your employees valuable things. Luckily, the most valuable thing you can give your employees is dignity. Be there with your employees as they do their job and help them. Look for the efforts they make to help the business and reward them, and guide them toward helping the business on its mission. I worked for an engineering firm during college inspecting job sites. My boss made it a point to come out to the field and check on me frequently, make sure I was getting along, and seeing if I needed anything. The experience made me want to work harder and to do more for the company. Take responsibility for fostering a work environment where people are happy to be there. Spend the resources to address their needs. If they feel grateful, your customers will feel grateful.

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