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How One Company Turned Gratitude into Misery - A Cautionary Tale

TL;DR: Employees are distrustful when companies suddenly start talking about "Gratitude", and it's easy to see why - it's often a disaster. Stories like this are far too common.


Background: A company, previously applauded for its innovative peer recognition program, encountered unexpected challenges following a major shift in its employee appreciation strategy. The original program allowed employees to earn points for both recognizing colleagues and being recognized, redeemable for tangible rewards like flex time and gift cards. This year, the company transitioned to "Gratitude Moments," a program purely based on non-material acknowledgment.


Issue: Post-transition, there was a marked decrease in employee participation. The removal of extrinsic rewards (points and gifts) led to a significant drop in engagement in the gratitude initiative. The company had been looking for ways to "trim the fat" for months so this change coincided with heightened stress levels in both personal and professional lives of employees, further exacerbating the issue.


The case highlights a critical lack of understanding basic human motivation. While the initial program might have been critiqued for 'bribing' employees to be nice, it tapped into a powerful motivator – loss aversion. Employees were motivated to engage not just for the gain but also to avoid losing out on potential rewards.


The shift to "Gratitude Moments," though well-intentioned, ignored the dual nature of human motivation – intrinsic (internal satisfaction) and extrinsic (external rewards). The sudden removal of all extrinsic rewards, especially during stressful times, triggered a sense of loss among employees. Furthermore, this change inadvertently painted 'gratitude' as a cost-saving measure rather than a genuine appreciation effort, leading to skepticism and disengagement.


Why This Matters: At its core, this story underscores the delicate balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in workplace culture. A more effective approach might have been to gradually integrate intrinsic motivators while maintaining some form of extrinsic reward. This would have helped in retaining engagement while shifting the focus to the more sustainable, intrinsic value of peer recognition and gratitude. The unintended consequence here was that 'gratitude', a powerful tool for building workplace positivity and culture, received an undeserved negative connotation, being perceived as a corporate cop-out rather than a genuine gesture of appreciation.


Lessons Learned:

  • The significance of understanding and balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in employee engagement strategies.

  • The importance of gradual transitions in policy changes to avoid triggering loss aversion among employees.

  • The need for authentic and transparent communication in implementing changes, especially those related to employee recognition and rewards.


This is just one story from one company, but I find echoes of many other stories from folks of ways their organizations intentionally or otherwise damage the effectiveness of tools like gratitude. It's hard to advocate for authentic appreciation in spaces like this, so I love having the opportunity to brainstorm with folks on how they can reverse the damage and maybe heal some small part of the organizational inflammation keeping them and their company from reaching their next best level.

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