Ryan Fehr: “We’re still human beings when we go to work”

November 1, 2017 Emily Payne

How can gratitude in the workplace prevent employee turnover and fuel company resilience? How can we think about gratitude in a broader scope to cultivate happiness at work?

We recently chatted with Ryan Fehr, associate professor of management at the University of Washington School of Business in Seattle. He researches positive organizational scholarship, ethics and morality, and leadership, with expertise in corporate social responsibility, ethics, and organizational behavior.

Fehr received a master’s degree and Ph.D from the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned his bachelor’s degree at The College of New Jersey.

Check out the first part of our interview below, or listen to it in the episode of WorkHuman Radio above.

Globoforce: Could you share a bit about your research and your work at the University of Washington, Seattle? 

Ryan: The main goal of my research is to examine how we can build more positive and collaborative organizations that really allow employees to thrive. I started my career focusing on apologies and forgiveness. I was trying to understand the ways in which we can encourage constructive solutions to conflict. And since then, I’ve broadened my research to cover other topics, as well. My favorite one as of late has been gratitude.

In the time I’ve been working on that topic, I’ve really been amazed by the power of gratitude to transform how people see their work and how people see their lives as a whole. And I’ve become convinced that it’s an invaluable tool for organizations. That’s really where I’ve been focusing my work in the past few years.

How to do you define gratitude? Are there different levels that can be found in a workplace? 

I think so, yes. First, you have to start with gratitude as an individual emotion. It’s this episodic feeling of appreciation in response to an experience that’s beneficial to us, but it’s caused by something outside of us. You can imagine that when somebody helps you, that’s beneficial to you. But that benefit is from outside of yourself, and then that’s when we really tend to feel gratitude as an emotion. But when we talk about gratitude in organizations, it’s important to recognize that gratitude doesn’t end there.

As an organizational scholar, I’m particularly interested in how gratitude emerges at work over time. What I argue in my research is that, over time, if you keep experiencing this grateful emotion at work, it can actually become a habit. You’re going to start being more likely to see gratitude in your everyday experiences. You’re going to start noticing when people are helping you – even just for little things – and experience gratitude more often as a result. I think you’re also more likely to interpret ambiguous events with gratitude.

Then you’d also start becoming more likely to recall past gratitude-inducing events and using that as a lens to shape how you see things. As you go to work, gratitude just becomes part of how you view the work itself.

When you think about your work and what happens to you every day, you view it through this more appreciative lens that can really be helpful for your well-being and for your productivity. Ultimately, the goal of an organization can be to get this persistent gratitude, this gratitude habit, to coalesce across the entire organization into what I call collective gratitude. This is where the whole organization shares this grateful outlook, this gratitude-oriented culture.

If you have an organization where gratitude is a norm and it’s shared throughout the organization, then that’s where you can really start seeing powerful effects – employees really being able to thrive at work, feeling more engaged to be more resilient to challenges that they face.

It sounds like it starts this cycle of positive emotion that just keeps feeding back into itself in the organization.   

Exactly. Sometimes we refer to that as positive spirals, where you start going down this path and then it’s very much a self-reinforcing mechanism. Other employees see each other expressing gratitude and feeling gratitude. We know that these types of emotions are contagious and so really it’s something that can build up and strengthen over time.

Do you think all these positive effects on wellness and well-being are why gratitude has really come to the forefront as a business practice?

Yes. Well, I think that there are a few reasons why gratitude has come to the forefront of business. If you look historically, businesses really suffered from two biases in my view.

First, business has become too competitive in terms of how we see our everyday experiences. It’s come to the point where we tend to view everything as a fixed pie. So if we believe that we’re going to win something, that means that we need to lose.

Second, work has just become too transactional. Employees are hesitant to do favors for each other; they’re hesitant to trust each other. They’re not really thinking in the long term; they’re only thinking in terms of the short-term exchanges. These biases – always viewing work as competitive, and always viewing work as transactional – are problematic at a lot of levels. This tendency to view work as transactional and competitive increases stress. It reduces employees’ feeling that they’re supported by their colleagues or their organization.

Those stresses and that feeling of not being supported hinder performance and increase the likelihood of turnover. I think that gratitude is on the forefront because it really can be an antidote to these problems. I personally view gratitude as a way to restore balance to the workplace, to the way we see our work and to our relationships within it. Because the reality is that we’re still human being when we go to work. We’re still the same selves that we are at home – we still have emotions, we still care about our relationships.


“I personally view gratitude as a way to restore balance to the workplace.”
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Being appreciated still feels good in the workplace just like it does everywhere else. By bringing gratitude into work, we can break down some of the barriers and some of those false assumptions about what work is supposed to look like.

In your research, what is the connection between developmental feedback and gratitude?   

There are a lot of different things that people can feel grateful for at work. Oftentimes, when we think of gratitude, we tend to think it as something that you only experience when somebody gives you something – as in, somebody gives you a gift or somebody helps you. But there is actually a lot more that employees tend to feel grateful for at work.

For example, in one study with nurses, some scholars found that one of the biggest sources of gratitude at work isn’t the help that we receive, but it’s the ability that work provides for us to help others. Because our ability to help others infuses our lives with meaning, it improves our feelings of self-worth. This population of nurses actually felt a lot of gratitude for this capacity to help others to find this meaning, to develop these feelings of self-worth through their work.

Gratitude can unlock our ability to clearly see all of these positives, and that’s why it’s so effective. In the case of developmental feedback, you may have a manager who highlights all the ways in which work is allowing an employee to develop new skills. This is just one example of how we can still instill a sense of gratitude in employees, in a way that is a little bit broader than we tend to think of gratitude.

Many of our readers are in HR. For gratitude to emerge at the organizational level, you write that there should be HR alignment. Can you explain what that means?   

Sure. I think whenever a company launches a new program that’s aimed at improving employees’ lives, whether it’s a gratitude program or a wellness program, etc., there’s a risk that employees are going to view it cynically. They’re going to say, “This is just an effort for the company to improve the bottom line. This is just the company’s effort to make employees work harder.” I think that it’s the same challenge that companies face in other realms, as well. In the environmental domain, if a company talks about its environmental sustainability, customers might accuse them of greenwashing.

The question then becomes, “What can companies do to demonstrate their sincerity to break through those cynical perceptions?” And the best answer, I think, is consistency. If a company really wants to instill gratitude in its employees, it can’t just have an appreciation program once a year and spend the rest of the year ignoring employees. What companies need to do – and what HR managers need to do – is to consistently work toward programs that are two things.

First, ones which increase opportunities to be grateful. Support those employees so they really do get a sense of belonging, a sense of competence, and feel supported through their work. Also, draw attention to all of those benefits. If you’re really aligned and focusing on those things, it becomes a part of the organizational culture. It becomes a part of the entire employee experience, not just this once-a-year ritual that doesn’t really align and match with the employees’ experience every other day of the year.

So it’s about looking at the whole human at work? 

Right, exactly. And trying to think when the employee goes in to work every day, what do they experience? From the HR perspective, what can I do to shape and improve that experience so that all of our programs really are with an eye toward gratitude and appreciation, a more human experience at work?


Ryan Fehr: “We’re still human being when we go to work @UW #workhuman
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