The #1 Secret to Employee Retention, Engagement and Morale

Blog post

In the #1 best-selling book How Full Is Your Bucket, Gallup researchers and authors Tom Rath and Donald Clifton reveal that the #1 reason people leave their jobs is a lack of appreciation. In fact, in their research of more than four million workers, a whopping 65% of Americans reported receiving no recognition in the past year. The impact of the lack of appreciation and prevalence of negativity in the workplace is significant and far-reaching – turnover rises, the risk of stroke increases, people are less productive, the risk of losing customers increases, and life spans are potentially shortened.

To add to the Gallup research, a survey of 2,000 Americans from the John Templeton Foundation, a non-profit organization that sponsors research on creativity, gratitude, freedom and other topics, found that only 10% of adults thank a colleague daily.  We are more likely to thank the mailman or a salesperson (people we hardly know) than a coworker. This has an impact at the workplace, where we find it much easier and more automatic to express negative emotions and blame and shame one another rather than looking for good.

Internationally renowned business strategist and best-selling author, Tony Robbins, suggests humans have six basic needs that make us tick. One of those needs is contribution – the sense that we are creating meaning and that what we do matters.  It is in giving that we receive. One of the primary ways we contribute is by giving of ourselves in the service of others, which can include acts of appreciation.

What we focus on expands, and we are biologically wired to notice negatively – to be attuned to any threats to our survival, whether they are real or perceived. For that reason, it’s much easier for us to provide “constructive” criticism than it is for us to offer a specific, authentic gesture of appreciation to a colleague.

Why is regularly expressing appreciation so critical in the workplace?

It creates safety. Appreciation and positive, predictable behavior are at the root of safety. When we feel safe, we trust people, so instead of staying in survival mode we’re able to shift toward creativity and openness. Creativity, openness and safety are necessary for organizations to continue to grow, develop, and innovate. When we feel safe and trust is there, we feel more connected, collaboration happens more easily, and we don’t have to “talk” about communication – it just flows more naturally.

Journalist, business author and speaker, Tony Schwartz wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review titled Why Appreciation Matters So Much and shared data from a study that demonstrated the impact of positivity on performance. “Among high-performing teams, the expression of positive feedback outweighs that of negative feedback by a ratio of 5.61 to 1. By contrast, low-performing teams have a ratio of .36 to 1.”

The benefits of safety extend beyond creativity and trust and are health protective. When we feel safe and appreciated, our risk of heart disease declines by one-third. Gratitude expert and best-selling author, Robert Emmons touts additional health benefits of gratitude in his book Gratitude Works!. It increases our sense of energy and alertness, reduces stress and our ability to cope with it, improves heart health and function and lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, and boosts our immune function and reduces symptoms of illness.

Think of learning how to express gratitude as learning a new language. Most of us are so mired in our automatic thought patterns that notice what is “bad” and wrong rather than what is good and right. But the good news is that we can change. The brain is highly adaptable and exhibits the trait of neuroplasticity, so the more we do something, the more connections in our brain to do that thing are strengthened. In the case of gratitude, the more we practice looking for good in others, expressing specific and authentic appreciation, and noticing what we are grateful for in our own lives, the easier it will become. Just like any muscle, we have to train it repeatedly so it can be strengthened.

So, how do we make this happen? How can we begin to make a shift to notice what’s right and supercharge our gratitude muscle?

  1. Focus on being a bucket filler, not a bucket dipper. In other words, intend to leave as many interactions as possible with the feeling that you filled someone up rather than drained them. Each day, ask yourself, “How can I be a contribution?” and act accordingly.
  2. Get in the habit of sending thank you notes or emails when someone does something you appreciate or admire. It takes almost no time and makes you and the person receiving it feel great. Handwritten notes are more effective than writing an email, though the email is better than doing nothing!
  3. ASK people how they like to be recognized and receive feedback and recognize them in that way. For more on this, I suggest reading the short but informative book, How Full Is Your Bucket by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton.
  4. Read this article about the specific steps one company is taking to drive negativity from its corporate culture by creating a culture of appreciation.
  5. Write a gratitude letter to another person and read it aloud to them. This action alone can improve feelings of happiness for up to ONE MONTH!
  6. Set out a thank you note basket with cards, envelopes and colorful pens for employees to write thank you notes to each other. We buy them on Amazon and choose covers that are colorful or notes that are funny.
  7. Start each meeting by asking what has gone WELL.
  8. Practice the “3 Great Things” exercise and write down three great things that happen each day. Do this for 21 days. Make note of WHY each of those things happened that day, if possible. Be specific.
  9. Take a few moments to ask your employees what they felt most proud of accomplishing over the past year. When they finish, add some observations about what you appreciate in that person. Be as specific as possible.
  10. Commit to a gratitude ritual, whether it’s keeping a journal, reflecting on three appreciations or good things before bedtime each night. There is not one right way to do it; the key is to be consistent at least twice each week. Get personal and focus on PEOPLE to whom you’re grateful vs. on THINGS for which you’re grateful.

Listen to our recent webinar, "The Power of Gratititude at Work: Creative Ways to Pay it Forward".

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To learn more about this topic, check out the following books and articles:

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman & Paul White

Gratitude Works! by Robert Emmons

Thanks! by Robert Emmons

Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson

How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath & Donald Clifton

Well-Being: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath & Jim Harter

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund & Benjamin Zander

The Powerful Effect of Noticing Good Things at Work by Joyce Bono & Theresa Glomb, Harvard Business Review, September 4, 2015,