I was born in Australia where the culture is all about equality. This means that while there's respect for authority, generally there isn't a strong power separation between a manager and their team members.
During my 6 years of working in Shanghai (China) in an office setting, I quickly noticed a clear difference in work culture. The power dynamic is much more prevalent, with bosses have clear dominance and authority over their subordinates. This is also literal in the difference in pay grades, it being common that a boss may earn 3x - 10x more. Being brought up in Australian culture, this was startling to me.
How does power relate to gratitude?
In my first few years I worked exclusively with a local team - people born in China. When I would thank them for doing something I asked, the response at times was, 'there's no need to thank me, I'm just doing my job.' While not necessarily literally said, that's certainly how I felt their reaction was. My expression of gratitude was received with a raised eyebrow - 'that's weird'.
Maybe it's because we didn't have an equal relationship, that made the expression of gratitude weird.
In a way, expressing gratitude is a way of humbling one's self to another. In the situation where you are a boss, and lowering yourself is against the cultural norm, this can create a culture where gratitude is less likely expressed.
Is it possible to change power, and then change gratitude?
After a few years of team growth, I ended up hiring 3 internationals to join my team at the same time (from Canada, Belgium, and Italy). In the end it was 8 locals and 4 foreigners (total 12). Immediately, my entire department felt the shift in culture. It wasn't new, rather it was an evolution. As expression of gratitude is more common in the international workplace in comparison to the local context, a more open communication flow began to emerge.
"Thank you," "Great job," "I like what you did there," etc. were more frequent comments.
Power hierarchies were lowered with team members challenging managers more and voicing their opinions. I don't think this culture is necessarily the best culture, but it certainly gave way to more gratitude because more friendships were forged.
My point is two things:
- Having less of a power dynamic between two people makes gratitude easier to express.
- It's possible to change the power dynamic in a workplace culture.