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Emotional (Barrier) Breakdown

How can work gratitude delta from verbal to variegated expressions, obligatory to authentic motives, and stagnant momentum to viral osmosis?

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“People feel grateful when they have benefited from someone’s costly, intentional, voluntary effort on their behalf.”


We were told that there was a difference between how people expressed gratitude in and outside of the workplace. We were also told that there is a difference between appreciation vs. recognition. 

So we decided to crowdsource for some answers. We created a survey to understand better: 

1) the difference of how people expressed gratitude in/out of the workplace

2) the motives for why people expressed kind gesture in/out of workplace

3) the emotions that were evoked through the exchange of kind gesture in/out of work place


We had received results from 42 people total and their ages range from 22-58, and participants come from a wide range of industries such as non-profit,  education, financial services, technology, to homemakers, etc. The participant’s geographical location is US centric, though spread out in various states. 


To categorize the ways people showed gratitude, we used Gary Chapman’s 5 love languages of: 

1. Acts of service

2. Gift

3. Time (quality)

4. Physical expression 

5. Words of affirmation 

In addition to that, we added a 6th category of “concern” as we often found people expressed kindness through active verbal concerns and check-in’s with others. 

We found some interesting findings that greatly aligned with the challenge description, with a more detailed twist. 


We found that the motives outside of work to give were more often related to a sense of connectedness, to match another person's actions, or for self-worth. The motive to give in work were more often from a place of matter of facts, obligation, organizational incentives, and also a need for expression of appreciation. Comparably, of the sample size we surveyed, twice the amount of people reported connectedness as a motive to give for outside of work than at work. 

Work motives included, “they asked”, “it is my nature and my success depends on it”, “I thought it deserved to be highlighted and no one else was going to do it”, whereas outside of work motives included “I was concerned about her wellbeing”, “they were not feeling well”, “I wanted us to share this time together”. If a generalization can be made, it appears the work motives can be less personal and more obligatory, and outside of work motives were more intrinsically motivated in caring for another’s well-being.


Here’s a rundown of the findings. When people described what kindness they received, the most common love language received outside of work was acts of service, acts of service/gifts, and time. When people describe kindness they receive at work, the most common is words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts; acts of service is about ⅔ of words of affirmation and gifts about ⅔ of acts of service. What was interesting was that time was common a language of love for outside of work, but never at work. People seemed to not like to spend more time necessary with coworkers. 

We noticed a release and control situation which highlights the power dynamics at play in a work setting. What also really stood out was someone feeling grateful for when their manager let them go early for personal reasons, and saw that as something to be grateful for. This would not occur outside of work say between friends and partners, and would most likely result in some problematic arguments over power.

Additionally, we see a lot of “learned behavior” at work - for example, if a superior performed a thoughtful act to you, you are more likely to re-apply a similar act of love within the workplace. So it’s evident that leaders play an important role in setting precedent for acts of gratitude.


Both in and outside of work, the most common ways others show gratitude is through words of affirmation, often a verbal or written thank you. In many cases, we may not receive anything in return. This allows us to see the works of the cycle of gratitude can traverses beyond the first initial kind act, usually through verbal forms, and can creates an osmosis of kindness when others feel truly moved by the act.

Outside of work, we have a much more variegated ways of receiving gratitude. We saw variations of acts of service/gift, acts of service/words of affirmation, gifts, and physical expression/affirmation. This begs the question: why is it that the way we express our gratefulness after someone does something kind to us so limited? What causes us to stop the impetus to do something kind in return and carry that act forward?


Here’s the rundown of findings here. In terms of how we give out kindness, acts of service is the most commonly self reported and the gift is the second highest, for both outside and at work. Acts of service is heavily chosen as love language of choice to give for people outside of work, and words of affirmation is the preferred method for work. Gifts are used both at and outside of work.

What is interesting and surprising is that when we give love languages to people at work, we actually show more variety of love languages than we do with people outside of work. It could be an outlier result of this research, or it could be something more that needs to be further explored. 

Comparing how we give love to how we receive love in the workplace, we see the most self reports of giving acts of service, but words of affirmation was self reported as received the most. This creates a mismatch between ways of giving vs. receiving. 

It could be due to social conditional, verbal expressions of gratitude are seem as social norms, therefore not consciously thought of as an act of kindness. Being part of the social norm, it’s verbal thank you’s may lose its authenticity, though people can intuitively sense the emptiness behind words. The art is to build that genuine connection and gratitude spoken from the heart. 


When people talked about how they express gratitude, the most obvious result is through words of affirmation(work/outside of work). However, physical expression, acts of service is more often used outside of work.  While we primarily use affirmations in and out of work to show gratitude, in life we more often pair the affirmations with another act of love. This again touches upon the question of how to create waves of gratitude osmosis. 

Our findings have triggered us into thinking more about the practices we can create. Authenticity, the continuation of gratitude cycles, and variegating ways of expressing gratitude in the workplace are areas we’d love to tackle.  



What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Gratitude is one piece of a larger puzzle of solving for human connectedness at work. The foundation of gratitude lies on equality, freedom, authentic connection. This ties into power dynamics of a hierarchical setup, the limitation of exchanges of non-work related activities at work, and the obligatory "facade" of confidence that prevents people to be vulnerable in the work place. To design for gratitude, we need to design a new organization as well as understand how to create business impetuses to create desires of behavior change.

Tell us about yourself

Our NYC based team is made up of Kim Li (, Abby Wen Wu (, and Stephanie Harrison Bailey(

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HI Abby Wu .

Great to see you sharing your provocations around this topic and bringing your voice to the Gratitude Challenge Community!

From the insights shared in your post, we think it may be particularly interesting to for you to attend our Gratitude in the Workplace Webinar with University of Washington positive organizational leadership expert, Ryan Fehr tomorrow, Oct 13 @ 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. He’ll be discussing recommendations for designing Ideas for this topic.

You can register for the webinar here We hope to see you there!