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You Made My Day! Exchanges of Gratitude at Work

Updated: May 6, 2019

A few weeks back, upon picking up my first-grader son from his after school program, he shared a story with me: while playing outside, he noticed a pair of sunglasses left on the basketball court. He knew they belonged to a certain third grade child who just left with his parent a few minutes prior. Realizing this, my son ran after the boy to give him his sunglasses, and the older child remarked in great thanks: “You just made my day!”

My son was captivated by this statement. He knew he had done something nice, and it was clear he was proud of himself for running fast enough to catch a “third grader”. But he lingered more so on the boy’s response: “I really made his day” he reflected. “I guess he would’ve been pretty sad if he lost his sunglasses or they got broken” he reasoned aloud. In processing the exchange, my son seemed to appreciate the boy’s expression of thanks just as much as the other child appreciated my son going out of his way to catch him.

This got me thinking about similar exchanges of gratitude at work – seemingly small, everyday exchanges of help and appreciation that can be beneficial and meaningful for both parties involved. Surely, when employees receive help at work, positive benefits can arise; but a recent study focuses on how helpers’ receipt of gratitude (my son’s experience when his peer expressed his sincere thanks) can lead to a host of positive workplace outcomes for the helper, as well – such as improved work engagement, satisfying the need to feel competent, and fulfilling a sense of belonging.

Interestingly, though, in this same study, Lee and colleagues find that help offered in response to a request (reactive helping) is more likely to be linked to the receipt of gratitude than providing help without being asked (proactive helping, like my son did for his sunglass-less peer), because sometimes proactive offers of help can make the recipient feel less competent and like they lack autonomy of a sense of control in their environment. Under these conditions, the recipients of the proactive help are less likely to feed back a sense of gratitude to the helper.

This distinction emphasizes the important findings from another recent study: that social support at work must be tailored to individuals’ needs; when too much personal support is provided or when such support is unwanted, it can chip away at the positive benefits of quality workplace connecting.

So, it looks like my son hit the sweet spot: his proactive offer of help was certainly needed and wanted, and the recipient’s genuinely appreciative expression of gratitude made my son’s day too.

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