How Gratitude Can Help Leaders Navigate a Crisis

Published: Dec 18, 2020



The expression of gratitude for employees’ efforts can be a huge motivation and productivity booster, especially during the worst of times.

And yet, while practicing gratitude may appear easy, it is one of the most misapplied tools of management. That’s a shame, because it is also one of the most critical skills for managers to master if they want to enhance their team’s performance during a crisis.

Research shows a staggering gratitude deficit in the work world during normal times (let alone a pandemic). A recent study by the John Templeton Foundation found that “people are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else.” Meanwhile, a survey by Glassdoor found that 81% of working adults say they would work harder if their boss were more grateful for their work, while only 38% report working harder when their boss is demanding and just 37% say they work harder if they fear losing their job.

The kind of gratitude we’re talking about is not just showering more “thank-yous” and “I think you’re awesome” statements on employees. This is not a rote checklist item. Expressions of gratitude must be genuine and specific. Leading in this way is not only about giving credit where it’s due, it’s about actually knowing where it is due. We find that managers who lack gratitude suffer, first and foremost, from a problem of cognition—a failure to perceive how hard their people are trying to do good work—and, if they’re encountering problems, what they are. Ungrateful leaders suffer from information deficit.

There are real, tangible benefits to leading in this way. A 300,000-person study conducted for us by a research partner in the midst of the last great recession (2008-09) found that more grateful managers led teams with higher overall business metrics, with up to two times greater profitability than their peers, an average 20% higher customer satisfaction, and significantly higher scores in employee engagement, including vital metrics such as trust and accountability. We’ve also found that when gratitude is regularly shown to employees, they feel more positive about their on-the-job contributions, are less stressed, and overall have a better sense of well-being. Don’t you? In addition, receiving gratitude tends to lead people to be more aware of and helpful to their colleagues and builds reciprocal appreciation for the work their managers are doing and the challenges they’re facing.


Just days after his retirement as chairman and CEO of American Express, we had a chance to interview Ken Chenault. In 17 years in that company’s top job, he led his company through downturns and intense competitive pressures. To survive and thrive, he created a culture focused on employee engagement and gratitude for work well done—and the results for stockholders, customers, and employees speak for themselves. He told us, “I think one of the things people get confused about is they see gratitude as simply being nice. This view of ‘I want to be very stingy with gratitude’ gets confused to mean I’m not being demanding. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You can be very demanding and bestow gratitude very often and be authentic.”

Let’s just say this about Chenault’s practice of gratitude at American Express: He never left home without it. Thank you. Thanks so much. Please, keep your seats.

Yet we find in tough times, some leaders think it is necessary to withhold positive sentiments at times in order to keep pressure on team members. “If we keep them on edge, they’ll work harder” is the thinking. That mentality is about as valid as a Blockbuster Video free-rental coupon. Pressure that comes with a crisis increases anxiety, and anxiety undermines productivity over time. In comparison, research from Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, in his essay “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times” in Greater Good magazine, shows that a leader who is more grateful amid difficult circumstances can help people cope better. “In the face of demoralization,” he explains, “gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”


A challenge we hear about practicing gratitude during this pandemic is the number of employees who have been forced to work remotely. How am I supposed to thank people now? The good news is there are online systems or apps that have been developed to facilitate team-based gratitude called social recognition systems.

A research team from the University of Washington, MIT, and Microsoft Corporation found that “appreciation systems—a genre of messaging and microblogging systems that mediate digital expressions of appreciation in the workplace—have become widely adopted in recent years.” Some 35% of companies were using some form of online peer recognition system before this crisis, with social recognition overtaking top-down efforts, and this will only increase in this new world of social distancing.

Social recognition systems can help build bonds outside of immediate teams, break down silos, and help workers in different locations feel more connected to one another. In addition, the more we can do to recognize and appreciate the small efforts of our remote team members, the more we help them feel included in the bigger team. Of course, managers shouldn’t just leave this to their teams to do peer- to-peer, but rather should participate in the system as well.

The researchers found “thanks” messages in social recognition systems are most often sent to co-workers outside of one’s own team—breaking down silos. Employees said they specifically wanted the other team member’s manager to see the thanks they were sending, “and most managers do report seeing the messages and mentioning them to team members,” the report said.

Another benefit of these programs is they allow leaders to record and track data to identify top performers who wow clients or other team members regularly. Leaders can then spend more time with these employees and learn how they are able to maintain enthusiasm to serve customers during challenging times.

At Bonusly, which has offices in Colorado and New York as well as remote employees around the world, each employee is given a budget and asked to find ways to celebrate other team members through the year. When a colleague does express gratitude to another for doing something valuable, the entire team is notified on a dashboard and gets a chance to join in on the celebration. To make sure everyone knows of the great work that’s going on—despite the distance that separates them—they maintain an online dashboard that displays all the gratitude that happens during the day. They are trying to encourage more expressions of thanks by putting power into the hands of everyone, making gratitude more visible, frequently offered, and specific to what matters most. (And no, if you’re wondering, employees don’t get to keep any money they don’t use.)

Of course, it’s not necessary to use a commercially designed program. At our company, The Culture Works, everyone is now working remotely, and we use a Slack channel for collaboration and gratitude. Typically, Slack is used for work sharing, but we’ve found it’s a terrific resource for thanks as well. The channel buzzes all day with messages as our teammates cheer each other’s successes, and there is a pile-on effect as people chime in with their congratulations in real time. This has been a terrific way to keep our remote and gig employees connected. For instance, when our web developer Bryce recently completed an upgrade that allowed for the automated fulfillment of orders (instead of the manual way we’d been doing things), the Slack channel went wild with members of the team thanking him and telling him specifically how that would impact their jobs and free them up to do other work.

Regular gratitude for small wins for your remote employees doesn’t have to be expensive and doesn’t have to be time- consuming, but it does have to be regular and always tied to one of the values you most cherish in your team.

About the Authors: Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are the New York Times bestselling authors of Leading with Gratitude, The Carrot Principle, and All In. They own the global training company The Culture Works and work with organizations around the world to address employee engagement issues. Learn more at