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Grateful Employees Are More Helpful and Have Better Attitudes: Poole Professor Finds Out Why

group of employees

– By Caroline Barnhill

Many businesses believe that employees feel obligated to reciprocate the favorable treatment that they receive from their organizations. But does “Hump day happy hour” really impact Harry in HR’s job performance, company loyalty and job satisfaction?

That’s what Tom Zagenczyk, Poole College professor of management, and colleagues set to find out. Their findings were recently published in the journal Group & Organization Management. We sat down with Zagenczyk to learn more about his findings. 

What does your research focus on?

Our research explored the question of whether a positive moral emotion (gratitude) or feelings of obligation (reciprocity) motivate employees to respond to favorable treatment from their organizations. 

How did you start this study?

Our work begins with the idea of perceived organizational support (POS), which Robert Eisenberger defined as the degree to which employees believe that their organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being. When an organization treats employees in a way that makes them feel valued (offering a raise, time off, support from leaders, etc.), employees typically respond with attitudes and behaviors that help the organization. So – ensuring that a new initiative increases POS is very important if a company hopes to get a return on an investment that they make on behalf of their employees. 

Do you have an example to illustrate the idea of perceived organizational support?

Years ago, we studied a company that built a new, beautiful and environmentally-friendly building for their employees with the expectation that this effort would increase employee productivity and foster positive attitudes. However, many of the benefits of the building – a great cafeteria, childcare facility, natural light – really only benefitted day-shift (and not evening- or night-shift) employees. At the same time, the organization refused to give employees a long-desired raise – but initiated a multi-million dollar effort to raise brand awareness and received a great deal of media attention for the new building. The employees did not believe that the building was “for them,” but rather an initiative intended to improve the bottom line. Because the building did not increase employees’ POS, their productivity and attitudes did not improve – and actually got worse when they moved into the new space.

How does this research differ from past research? 

Typically, academic research has focused on the reciprocity norm – meaning we help, and don’t harm, those who help us – as an explanation for why POS leads to positive employee attitudes (like engagement, commitment and job satisfaction) and behaviors (such as going beyond what’s specified in job descriptions to help the company, staying with the company, helping coworkers, etc.). In this research, we challenge the idea that the reciprocity norm – or feelings of obligation – is the best explanation for employees’ favorable attitudes and behaviors and instead argue for the importance of gratitude, which is a moral and others-oriented emotion. 

What did you discover about the reasons employees may, or may not, be supportive of their workplaces? Is obligation or gratitude more influential?

We surveyed employees working in the headquarters of Korean manufacturing organizations in our first study and employees working for a public school district in Texas for our second study. Relative to reciprocity (felt obligation) or pride, employee gratitude emerged as a much stronger explanation for the link between perceived support and discretionary helping behaviors, organizational commitment and job satisfaction. In other words, the reason why employees responded favorably to POS was because they felt grateful – not because they felt obligated to do so or because they were proud of themselves.

Were you surprised by the findings?

Yes and no. On the one hand, yes – because research on the relationship between POS and these behavior and performance outcomes has drawn almost exclusively on reciprocity (felt obligation) as an explanation for nearly four decades. On the other hand, if we think about times when we felt grateful to another person or organization, versus times when we felt obligated to our companies, it makes sense that a positive emotion like gratitude would better explain why we behave favorably in response to being treated well. Feelings of obligation are like a debt, to some degree – we help the other party until we’ve paid it off. However, feelings of gratitude are more likely to create a long-term relationship in which both parties believe the other is concerned about their well-being.

Did any new questions arise based on your findings that may lead to additional research?

Definitely. First, what is it about the treatment that employees receive that makes them feel grateful versus obligated? We believe the answer to this question depends on why employees believe that they’ve been treated favorably by the organization. Did the organization provide favorable treatment because it is truly concerned about the employee or for some other reason? In this respect, a company’s reputation as an employer – or the manner in which they have treated their employees over the years – might play an important role. For example, employees who work for companies that have mistreated them in the past will likely be cynical of a company’s motives. Second, there might be other explanations for the connection between POS and employee attitudes/behaviors, such as work engagement, and we’d like to explore this as well. 

Based on your findings, what is some practical advice you’d give to companies looking to earn goodwill and loyalty from their employees?

Fostering feelings of gratitude is probably very important now, as anecdotal evidence suggests that employees feel that they owe their companies very little (if anything). Additionally, fads like “quiet quitting” are quite popular, and more and more employees opt for non-traditional employment arrangements like gig work. Before embarking on large-scale initiatives aimed at improving employee attitudes and behaviors, companies could benefit from gaining an understanding of how the treatment that they’re going to offer employees is likely to be perceived. Employees who are already cynical – because the organization has broken promises to them in the past, for instance – may not respond well to such initiatives. So, it’s important for organizations to ensure that their employees believe the company has their best interests in mind. Sure, most employees understand that companies are going to do what’s in their own best interests – but companies may benefit from making sure that employees know that they are thinking of them as well. 

Second, companies may be able to increase gratitude among specific employees by offering them special treatment that is designed specifically for them, such as training and development, because such individualized efforts would be a signal of being valued. Of course, a potential side effect could be low levels of perceived fairness among employees who don’t get special treatment. Finally, companies should avoid using language or sending signals that suggest that favorable treatment that employees receive carries with it the expectation that they do more for the company, as this would greatly reduce the likelihood that employees experience gratitude. 

This post was originally published in Poole Thought Leadership.