The Power of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek

The Power of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek

In this episode, we explore workplace relationships and employee well-being with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek. Learn how expressing gratitude and self-compassion can enhance job satisfaction and workplace harmony, including tips for creating a supportive work environment. We also examine the effects of these practices on leaders and employees, the hurdles to implementing them, and insights from current research in the field.

Apr 8, 2024
By the Labfront Team
Dr Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek of Clemson UniversityDr Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek of Clemson University
Dr Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek of Clemson University
The Power of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek

The Power of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek

In this episode, we explore workplace relationships and employee well-being with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek. Learn how expressing gratitude and self-compassion can enhance job satisfaction and workplace harmony, including tips for creating a supportive work environment. We also examine the effects of these practices on leaders and employees, the hurdles to implementing them, and insights from current research in the field.

Episode Highlights

(01:15) Introduction and Background

(03:54) Exploring Self-Compassion and Gratitude in the Workplace

(08:39) Intrapersonal vs. Interpersonal: Gratitude and Self-Compassion

(12:00) The Evolution of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace

(23:40) Challenges and Unintended Consequences of Workplace Gratitude and Compassion

(28:42) Future Research Directions on Workplace Gratitude

(32:00) Actionable Insights for Fostering Compassion and Gratitude

(43:00) The Future of Self-Compassion and Gratitude Practices

(46:07) Current Projects and Future Directions

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Sharon: Stop being fearful about expressing gratitude at work. You don't have to say it perfectly. You don't have to be the most eloquent speaker or the best writer of, of gratitude emails. But expressing it is really sending the signal that you value and appreciate the person that you're thanking. And that message gets across to them. 

John: Welcome to Human Science, a podcast exploring the human element behind the science that shapes our everyday lives. We're powered by Labfront, the go-to tool trusted by researchers looking to automate their studies and transform real-world data into health insights.

I'm John Drummond, and in today's episode, we're exploring workplace relationships and employee well-being with Dr. Sharon Sheridan and Sara Krivacek. We'll discuss their findings on the effects of compassion and gratitude on job satisfaction and office dynamics. Plus, we'll share some practical tips for leaders and employees to foster these values and create a compassionate, grateful work culture with a human touch.

Introduction and Background

John: So everyone, please welcome Sharon and Sara. Thank you so much for joining us. we're going to be diving into some of my favorite topics, gratitude, compassion, whether that's interpersonally within your friendships or interpersonally with ourselves, and more importantly, how we navigate those complexities within the workplace, but in our personal relationships as well.

So I'm really grateful to be joined today by two experts in gratitude and compassion, and I was thinking we could start with Sharon. Sharon, can you give us a little self-introduction? Yeah, 

Sharon: I'm really excited to be here. So I am an assistant professor of management at Clemson University and, I've been at Clemson for about four years, and before that was at University of North Dakota, and then before that, Ages ago, I was a manager and consultant for about eight years, and, yeah, my research focuses primarily on,positive workplace relationships and gratitude is kind of a key, mechanism that I study, that actually fosters good relationships at work.

John: So, so, so important. I can't stress the incredible work you're doing and How important it is that we can find some beautiful takeaways today. So anyone listening who is a leader, maybe a manager, or who of course is an employee who works with a manager or a leader. I think there's going to be some wonderful topics around that.

And Sara, do you mind giving us all a little introduction as well?

Sara: Yeah. And thanks for having us here today, John. We're excited to do this podcast. so I'm a doctoral candidate at Clemson University and I'll be graduating this May and joining the faculty at James Madison University this fall. So really excited for that. And in terms of research, I originally actually started off in the healthcare industry and nursing because I cared about learning ways to help people.

And although I ended up taking a different path, path. I think my core interest and questions remain the same. So I'm still interested in learning about ways to help people, employees specifically, whether, you know, that's ways to mitigate stress or pathways that contribute to an employee's well being.

And so one of the core constructs at the front of this space and, you know, in the general theme of attending to mental health is self compassion. So I started to become really curious on what it means to practice self compassion at work. And that's what my dissertation explored and also a project that Sharon and I are working on.

John: Wonderful. Beautifully articulated, both of you. Thank you so much for that. 

Exploring Self-Compassion and Gratitude in the Workplace

John: So, I was thinking we can start maybe at a high level, 30,000 view of these things, because in my experience, you know, compassion, self compassion, gratitude are such important concepts, but they're also buzzwords, and I think they can get a little muddled in today's vernacular, in today's world.

So, Sharon can you define to us? What is gratitude in the workplace? 

Sharon: Absolutely. 

Defining Gratitude and Its Impact at Work

Sharon: Well gratitude is complex because it can really be kind of a disposition So you might have some employees that are sort of more prone towards a grateful disposition.

And what that really means is that they're the people that are more apt to kind of recognize and notice the positive experiences or the good things that are happening. and they will be more apt to recognize those, to feel grateful, to express gratitude to other. Employees at work. so it can be kind of a personality trait or a disposition.

And it can also just be this emotional state of feeling thankful. You know, you recognize that, somebody did something for you that was sort of, above and beyond, maybe it was unexpected. Expected, something that, you know, you really appreciate and you feel this warm sense of appreciation.

And so that's, I think what most people think about when they think about gratitude. It's this feeling of, really appreciating what somebody has done for you. But gratitude it becomes interpersonal when we actually express it to other people at work.

So not only do I feel, you know, grateful that my co worker helped me out with this deadline on this project, and they didn't have to do it, but I actually, express that to them and tell them how thankful I am, or maybe I write them an email to thank them, or, it could be any number of ways that I actually express that appreciation.

So gratitude can really kind of manifest, within the person, you know, as a trait, as an emotional state, and also, an expression or a behavior where we actually, send our gratitude, to other people at work. 

And so I think it does kind of take on a lot of, sort of an umbrella term for recognition. But when we talk about gratitude from a scientific standpoint, we're really focusing in on that emotional state and on that behavioral expression of communicating our appreciation to somebody else.

John: I love that. Yeah. And the concept there, beautifully said, as the, the dance between the interpersonal and the intra, which I think will also be a useful definition we can get into in a second too. but yeah, Sara, do you mind maybe, defining for us self-compassion from the workplace perspective as well.

Sara: Yeah. 

Understanding Self-Compassion in a Professional Setting

Sara: So similar to gratitude, self compassion is a positive construct. And one of the differences is this can be thought of as a self focused practice. So this is really extending kindness towards yourself in the face of suffering or adversity at work. And it's been defined in the literature as a process where we notice that we're struggling at work.

We're mindful of our feelings and empathizing with our struggles, and it ends with some type of behavioral component. So we're behaving in a way that extends kindness to ourselves or a way that we're showing self-kindness to ourselves. And although this definition might sound easy to implement, it's actually pretty tricky for us to kind of practice this in the workplace.

When we make mistakes or fail, it's our natural inclination to be overly harsh or critical of ourselves. You know, we feel isolated or alone and we adopt this, mindset of this doesn't happen to anyone else in the workplace, but me. And so self compassion is thought of like a skillset that we need to really harness and practice to kind of help mitigate these suffering instances that might show up in the workplace.

And, unsurprisingly, the research will show that when we do practice self-compassion, it's largely beneficial. It can contribute to the employee's overall well being, and it combats negative experiences like burnout in the workplace. And it's also been shown to positively relate to job satisfaction and job performance.

So, overall, it's largely beneficial for the person practicing self compassion. 

John: It's fascinating too. And gosh, I have so many follow ups to all of these because it feels so relatable probably to anyone listening to who is working which is hopefully, you know I'd imagine the majority of us but something before we get a little deeper can we define intrapersonal versus interpersonal and maybe can we give an example from gratitude and self compassion?

Intrapersonal vs. Interpersonal: Gratitude and Self-Compassion

Sharon: Yeah, so interpersonal gratitude would be when, I am recognizing that somebody has done something kind for me. Somebody has, provided some sort of benefit to me. and then I actually express that gratitude to them.

So I tell them. Thank you so much. You know, I, I, really appreciate what you did for me. It means a lot. and we, essentially communicate that gratitude to them. That's the interpersonal, expression of gratitude. And the intrapersonal experience of gratitude is when we are recognizing In, in our heads, you know, in our bodies, when we're feeling, that sense of appreciation, we are sort of feeling it internally.

Maybe we're making a mental list about, you know, the things that we're grateful for, or we're recognizing how meaningful that was to us and how appreciative we are, but we're just, thinking about it. So it's more of a cognitive, internal thought process and internal, um, sort of emotional experience. It only becomes interpersonal when we actually are expressing it to our colleagues or expressing it to, customers or whoever we're sort of interacting with in the workplace.

John: Yeah, it, it makes a lot of sense right there. So if I'm summarizing that, the inter is when we express it and the intra is when we feel it. Is that a good summarization there? Yeah, that was 

Sharon: Actually a really, short and sweet way to say it and a lot, a lot more, friendly to the lay person. I think, what we get in our, we get in our research, mindsets, and we make it overly complex. I really liked the way you summarized it. 

John: I love it. I, I think, you know, it's, it's, it's a dance for everyone right there. And so thank you for sharing that, Sharon. And Sara, yeah, for self-compassion.Do you mind defining that for us as well in that context of intra versus inter? 

Sara: So starting off with intra-personal, there's been a lot of research on this with self-compassion and like Sharon said, this is kind of like the internalized process that would happen to the individual who's practicing self-compassion.

So for instance, research has shown that, when the individual practices self compassion we'll see a positive relationship with resilience. We'll see improved mental health, like mitigating depression. And we'll see improved physical health, like improved sleep quality. So that's, you know, what happens within the person is intrapersonal.

And for interpersonal self compassion, this is, less investigated in the literature and it manifests probably a little bit differently. I'm going to talk a little bit about what I mean by self compassion. Self compassion is defined differently than gratitude, just probably because of the definitions of the constructs and how they're conceptualized.

But this essentially would be how this manifests and what this looks like between people. So, for instance, if I'm practicing self compassion at work, what does that mean in the context of me and my coworkers? Or if my leader's practicing self compassion, how does that impact me? What are the interpersonal consequences that could arise from an individual practicing this type of behavior? And so this is also one of the research questions that I'm investigating for my dissertation.

The Evolution of Gratitude and Self-Compassion in the Workplace

John: It's, it's fascinating. And can you set the stage of where did we come from and where are we right now in the terms of expressing gratitude in the workplace and expressing compassion or self-compassion even in the workplace? Is that frowned upon? Is that encouraged now from leaders?

Sharon: In terms of gratitude, early on, in the organizational research, it was recognized that, gratitude is an emotion that employees are likely to feel at work. You know, when somebody is doing something nice for them, going out of their way for them, helping them, whatever the case may be, that, that is probably an emotion that will arise.

And researchers were interested in this because, you know, it was like, well, when we know when people feel grateful, there's some predictable things that may happen.

So there's kind of this positive side to it. So to speak from gratitude where, you know, I feel grateful cause somebody helped me out and I'm more apt to help them out in the future. 

But what's interesting is that gratitude also extends beyond that. So when people feel grateful to somebody else at work, they're not only more likely to help that person they're grateful towards in the future, but they're also more likely to help other people at work. So I think that was something that was really interesting and sort of understanding that if we can cultivate gratitude at work, we can potentially have these sort of, spillover effects where it's not just kind of a, a one-to-one experience where, we have these helping behaviors, for instance, happening as a result of people feeling grateful and sort of repaying, you know, their dues so to speak. But it can actually spiral into other positive effects at work.

And I think what's, what's really exciting about gratitude is that the research on gratitude at work is really. quite minimal. There's been a lot of research outside of the workplace. And actually, my colleagues and I just published a review on gratitude, looking at, you know, what is the lay of the land?

And I think we've reviewed over 400 articles on gratitude and a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction. we're looking at gratitude in the workplace. You know, we could have kind of a, a discussion about why that is. And you said, was there a prescription to not express gratitude at work? I don't think so, but I think there is this very real sense.

And there's actually some,research that was done maybe about 10 to 12 years ago, now from the John Templeton foundation, actually surveyed people and people reported that they express gratitude far less at work than any other aspect of their life. And so I think there's something about when we enter the workplace, you know, we're now in a hierarchy.

We're now in a situation where we have roles assigned to us and obligations, you know, we're supposed to perform, we're supposed to, be good citizens at work and, and so what's part of my role? What's not part of my role? I think there's a lot of complexities about well, what are people doing at work that's worthy of gratitude or are they just doing their jobs? And so I think we're really at the forefront of understanding gratitude at work. Most of the research early on has looked at, well, what are the positive effects or what are the, likely effects when people feel that emotional state of gratitude at work?

And we find that, they're more likely to help other people at work. They'll feel like they're having more of an impact at work when people, are there. Express gratitude towards them. So there's initial, validation of the positive effects of gratitude that we see in, you know, friendships and, and families and, and romantic relationships.

But we're really early on and kind of understanding, the nuances of gratitude at work. And I think it's going to be a really exciting area because, how do we know when we should express it? Do people want to be thanked at work or are they going to feel like I'm just doing my job?

So I think there's a lot to investigate and,sort of, unpack when it comes to gratitude at work. 

John: Yeah. And Sara, is that similar to what you're finding in your dissertation and your research as well? That's kind of where were we and where are we now and maybe where we headed with self compassion and compassion in the workplace?

Sara: Yes, exactly. The literature and self compassion started booming in management journals, maybe in the early 2000s, but there's a lot of information. We still don't know about what this really looks like in the workplace. And, you know, to your point, John, as well, I think we're kind of adopting in society and we're finding that we're, we're working in this always on culture and where workaholism levels are really high and with technological advances, we are just always working and available to work as well. And so practicing for self compassion, for instance, being perceived as a self focused behavior might contradict the notion of, am I acting in my role as an employee? Am I behaving in a way that I'm expected to show up in the workplace? And there's been some research, you know, on paradox and compassion or fear of compassion as well in the workplace.

And I think it's touching on some of the points that you brought up that we still really need to investigate some of this as well. There's some ancillary work that maybe employees fear that practicing self-compassion would be met with resistance as other employees might not see it as appropriate or acceptable in the workplace.

And this could be for a variety of reasons. People might perceive that this is a selfish behavior, that you're prioritizing yourself over work, or, you know, that this is an excuse for a poor work ethic. You can't endure hardships and so forth. And so that's what originally really interested me in understanding more on what it means to practice self compassion in the workplace.

And I think there's a lot of exciting opportunities to find out more on this research stream. And, so far in my dissertation, I found that observers or surrounding coworkers largely feel positive about when their employees are taking care of themselves and extending compassion towards themselves.

John: Yeah, that's, makes me think too of, is it seen as selfish? You know, something that I think about when I'm applying for jobs or when I am now hiring new employees, I'm wondering, to what level do you let them see a bit of your personal life? And so maybe, Sharon, have you found in your work with, with in terms of gratitude, how much are we supposed to now let on that to our employees or to our leaders that we care about gratitude?

Is there a threshold right now or a spectrum or is this still a very, hey, this depends on each individual? 

Sharon: You know, that's a good question. I don't think that there is a, concern that expressing gratitude is, a bad thing at work, but it's certainly something that doesn't seem to be happening As often as people would like.

You can look at the Gallup surveys and you can look at national, international surveys, half, half of the respondents will say that they feel appreciated at work and, and the other half will say they're not.

And so, you know, it's really kind of an interesting question. are people not expressing gratitude at work, or are people just not recognizing the gratitude that's being expressed as, as gratitude? 

Do they see it as authentic, or do they see it as, you know, somebody is expressing gratitude to me to suck up to me or to get in my good graces, it's a workplace, right? People are maneuvering, for power. People are maneuvering for influence. So there's always these, concerns about how are we going to be seen?

 I think what's really interesting is there's some recent research that's looking at, sort of this common thread, in the workplace and outside the workplace where people are actually a really bad judge of how other people will respond to their gratitude, or generally speaking to their attempts to just connect with people.

So there's some research that looks at, people's judgment or, expectation about how somebody is going to react to a letter of gratitude they write to them. And people expect that the person that they want to thank might feel awkward or they're going to think it's weird if you're expressing gratitude or they're going to be sort of judging or critiquing how well they wrote their letter of gratitude or the words that they use, but the receivers aren't thinking like that. People like to be thanked. People respond well to gratitude. And so, like I said , we really haven't gotten deep on gratitude in the workplace, and kind of unpacking these things. But when we look at gratitude in the workplace, we find that expressing more gratitude is a positive thing. Um, and so it's something that I think we do want to cultivate.

I would say at this point, most of the research has focused on managers, higher employees, expressing gratitude down the chain. We really haven't unpacked too much about expressing gratitude up the chain, of command. We know that it's really meaningful in any relationship that you have, whether, whether you're in a relationship with a superior or with a peer, you know, or somebody below you.

Sara: And to piggyback really quick off of what Sharon said, we both are like familiar with the vulnerability literature and, this is kind of like a broader umbrella of, you know, should we express vulnerability in the workplace?

And maybe gratitude and self compassion can fall under this large umbrella as well, and there's some research that really investigates and look at, is there like a risk, you know, maybe depending on your status within the organization, if you're expressing some type of vulnerability. And what she said earlier as well about expressing gratitude and how it's maybe lacking in the workplace context that really resonated with me because I remember at least from just a personal example, if I was working with someone new and I asked them for a question or something like that over email, if they would respond back, I would just feel so bad about taking up their time.

I wouldn't, I'd fear about sending a thank you email to them because I didn't want to put another email in their inbox. And so it's really interesting hearing Sharon talk about some of these things and, you know, kind of overcoming this fear and saying, you know, it's important to express your gratitude.

Sharon: So I think, again, one of the things that is really important to think about when it comes to gratitude. And this is a thread that connects gratitude and self compassion. Like Sara said, when you are grateful to somebody, it's typically because they did something for you.

So in the workplace, what does that look like? Maybe somebody helped you out, with a report or somebody kind of saved you in a meeting or somebody, helped you out with the irate customer or something. And the workplace is a place we're supposed to perform, right, and our individual performance is really critical.

And that's how we sort of get recognized and get promotions and whatever. And so when we're acknowledging that somebody else did us a favor, did us a kindness, in a way, we are kind of recognizing that and expressing that we were in a position of being somebody who or being somebody that needed somebody else's assistance or help.

And so I think there's a little bit of that in there too. In terms of, you know, is it okay to express gratitude at work? And how's it going to be received? And what are people going to think of me? But I think a lot of those fears are really unfounded. They're perceived pretty positively when they express gratitude.

John: I love that. And I love the piggybacking. That's always welcome. 

Challenges and Unintended Consequences of Workplace Gratitude and Compassion

John: And the new thoughts, thinking about all this too, as we dive in, of course, I want to focus majority on the positive of all this research for both sides, but Maybe before we dive even further into that, can we talk about the challenges? Are there unintended consequences for expressing gratitude and, and expressing compassion? Maybe we can take this from the perspective of the manager, of the CEO or the C suite the literature showing that there's unintended consequences at the moment? 

Sara: I think, and I guess, the direction that I'm, that originally came to my mind was the project that Sharon and I are currently working on. So she might be able to add more insight if she, if some other thoughts popped into her head. But we were very interested, John, in understanding, you know, how some of these positive behaviors apply for leaders.

We know that the target is the opposite for, self-compassion and gratitude, self versus other, but you know that these are largely positive behaviors that are encouraged in organizations. But we were starting to realize that this might be different for leaders and there may be this paradoxical notion, you know, are leaders allowed to focus on themselves?

Do leaders deserve gratitude? And so we became very curious early on in exploring this from the lens of a leader.

Sharon: Yeah. And I, I guess I would say, I don't think that we're going to uncover that there's this dark side to gratitude, so to speak. But I think it's important to think about what gratitude does. Gratitude, you know, Sara Algoe's work and her colleagues, her lab at University of North Carolina, does a lot of research on gratitude.

And what they really find is that gratitude binds people together. So when somebody expresses gratitude to you, it, it does a few things. So it highlights to you that, Hey, this is a person that recognizes the things that I did for them. they might be a good person to, keep close to me. They're a good, a good, might be a good relationship partner for me, because they're somebody that's, you know, recognizing me, appreciating me, so they value what I do for them, and so it binds people closer together.

That's a good thing. you know, generally speaking, we want people to be, building higher quality relationships at work. But, when you do sort of become indebted or maybe you cross the line, you're feeling a little more indebted to somebody, or, you're very, sort of tied to them, some research, there's just very, very minimal, but some research has looked at does this, potentially affect our decision making, about that person?

Might we give them more of the benefit of the doubt than, is appropriate, in certain types of situations? You know, sometimes when we're in relationships with people, whether that was sparked by gratitude or something else, we see what we want to see, you know what I mean?

And so, just thinking about gratitude, bringing people together, bringing them closer. I don't think it has any sort of direct negative. and impacts. 

Sharon: I think a lot of the concerns or fears about expressing gratitude are actually, not borne out by how people actually perceive it.

Now, I, I guess as I say that there's one thing that I would say we want to know more about or, or would like to understand more. I think one of the questions was, Hey, well, a lot of times at work, gratitude is expressed gratitude. In front of a crowd, you know, in front of a team. And if I want to thank one person on the team as the leader, and I want to really acknowledge what they did on this project, is it better to do that just in private, me and that person, or is it okay to do that sort of in front of the other colleagues?

And we really need to kind of unpack that, you know, the public versus private discussion. 

Sharon: What does it mean to witness gratitude? If I'm somebody witnessing, this gratitude expression that's happening, maybe between my leader and, another, of my fellow employees, some people might feel envious. You know, hey, the leader is thanking that person and they're not thanking me.

So I think we, we do need to, understand what's happening in the workplace when people are being recognized, people are being appreciated and maybe other people feel left out. I don't think we have enough data right now to really say, you know, leaders should, should do this and should not do that.

But I think that's something where we need to head is understanding gratitude in the context of, um, teams and, you know, Sort of the mode of expression. Do I do it one on one? Do I do it in front of others? It's something where we need to dive deeper. 

John: Yeah,this umbrella of vulnerability is so important to me and when I And as you were saying, Sharon, when I witness gratitude, I still have a part of me that's looking for the authenticity of it, and maybe this is a bit of a defense mechanism in myself or a limiting belief in myself, who knows, we can unpack that later, but I'm still wanting to see some level of, like, genuine gratitude being expressed. 

John: So I wonder if there is going to be future research on genuine like here's this specific evidence of what you did. And here's why I'm thanking you for that. And I think it, it just feels so complex because there's so many nuances around like when it probably is important to say it to the whole team and when it's more personal, one on one of like, hey, this really helped me out or this helped the situation. So, oh, so much cool research, upcoming, I believe. And then, as you said, Sharon too, how, how this is still so fresh, so new, to where we are headed.

The Power of Understanding Individual Appreciation Preferences

Sharon: Yeah, one of the projects that my colleagues and I are actually looking at is, do people have different preferences for how they're appreciated at work? You know, maybe some people really want that like organizational award or for them, it's all about kind of recognizing their, performance accomplishments and, you know, they want the, promotions and they want the raises and they want that recognition that way.

And for other people, maybe they, want to be recognized, in a more, sort of communal way. So I like words of appreciation. I like, maybe a small token of appreciation, a gift, or, you know, maybe I want my leader to take me out to lunch, spend time with me, and that's how I really feel valued, and so we're kind of trying to investigate, well, what happens when leaders are expressing gratitude in ways that align with how I want to be appreciated, and, and what happens when maybe they're misaligned.

And, we find that, you know, really people are looking for cues in their relationships that their relationship partners get them. Right. And so if you understand sort of my love language of appreciation, we find that that can be really beneficial, because it, it sort of acknowledges that, hey, the leader gets me, or this colleague really understands me, and I, I have a good, safe relationship with them, And we find that that actually sparks people to engage in sort of more risky behaviors at work, like they're more willing to voice concerns when, they have a leader that expresses gratitude frequently in a way that matches the way they want to be appreciated.

But we also find that, just frequently expressing gratitude, even if you're not doing it perfectly. It still has positive effects on, people feeling appreciated at work. So I, I wouldn't say that people should be too concerned about sort of getting it wrong, but I think it suggests that, you want to get to know your employees.

You want to get to know what people, value and what matters to them so that you can actually recognize them in a way that is really meaningful, to them. I think that's where you can unlock the power of, of gratitude at work.

John: It, it feels like, first of all, I'm just so thankful. I'm just thrilled to hear that it's, it's a good thing, you know, we're largely trending in the right direction for compassion and gratitude because I'm such a believer in those things. when you were saying like, so far we're not uncovering any like dark sides, I was so happy.

So just as someone who is an observer of all this literature, I'm, I'm grateful that that's still what we are currently finding. And. Thank you. you were touching on some, a bit of these like actionable insights, both maybe for managers and employees of how we can cultivate more gratitude and more compassion in the workplace.

Actionable Insights for Fostering Compassion and Gratitude

John: Can we share some actionable insights of the current literature and the data of what works right now for that balance of self and kind of other focused practices to create a better work environment? 

Sara: Yeah, I would love to. And some of these takeaways, you know, could apply for employees or leaders themselves. And just to provide a personal example, I'm from Pittsburgh, so I'm a Steelers fan. And this past season, I was listening to an interview between a reporter and the head coach, Mike Tomlin. And the reporter asked him, you know, as a leader, who do you go to when you face challenges or face uncertainty?

And I thought his answer was really interesting. He said, increasingly over the years, no one. Leadership is a lonely thing. And I thought that was really powerful to the struggles that leaders endure on a daily basis at work and speaks to the need for self compassion. So we know it's this robust tool and skillset that we need to harness and practice and add to our toolkit.

But like I mentioned earlier, our, always on workaholic world that we operate in, practicing self-compassion might not seem as intuitive towards us and might be tough to implement. So one takeaway is it's really interesting that research shows that extending compassion towards others or other compassion This is much more intuitive to us.

This comes a little bit easier to us because it even has evolutionary roots for us to take care of other people. So one helpful tip of self compassion is to imagine that the suffering experience or whatever the struggling event is, imagine that this was someone else going through it, a family or a friend.

They were going through this tough situation. Then think about what you would do and what you would say to them, to help alleviate their stress. And then the research will show and tell us to turn all of that and to apply that to ourselves. 

 And then a second takeaway that came to mind as well is really honing in on this common humanity piece of self-compassion and common humanity is an important component of this construct. It's the realization that we have that we're not alone in our suffering and our failures at work.

We have the realization that everyone makes mistakes or fails in some type of way. And I think adopting this type of mindset can really be the fuel to help us be more self compassionate to ourselves. And ultimately it's because it can really help us address a feeling that we're all just really too familiar with.

And that's guilt, you know, guilt that I didn't do enough, guilt that I couldn't be the perfect employee or perfect parent, guilt that I had to set boundaries and so forth. And so I really think kind of honing in on that common humanity piece. can really help us with that.

John: Beautiful. I love the story there of Mike Tomlin. I'm thinking about that in terms of some of the leaders that I love and yeah, who do they turn to? That's a, that's really profound right there. Thank you for that, Sara.

And Sharon, the same to you, if you don't mind of how can we share any maybe actionable insights from the gratitude research and literature. 

Sharon: Absolutely. So, I mean, kind of picking off of Sara's anecdote about, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach and leadership being a lonely endeavor, you know, I think, so I'll talk about, talk a list from two perspectives about gratitude.

So, this first perspective I'm going to say is what I think a takeaway is for, employees. So, you know, leadership can be kind of lonely and, and we know from some of the research that employees and managers differ in terms of their perspective of what managers should be responsible for doing in terms of, helping employees like with their emotional problems and things like that.

Employees tend to think that that's well within the bounds of, of leadership behavior and managers kind of think, but that's me going above and beyond. And employees should really recognize that. I think it's important as an employee to sometimes step back and go, My leader is a human being too. And hey, especially if I actually have a good boss, you know, I need to recognize that, they're probably having to expend a lot of energy investing in their employees and, you know, investing in their subordinates.

They're taking the brunt of stuff that's coming down from above them. And we know, or at least, from, from my research that when leaders feel appreciated by their subordinates, they have more energy and then they actually have more positive job attitudes and they're more likely to engage in more helping behaviors at work and they have better, attitudes and behaviors at work.

And so it matters for leaders to actually feel appreciated by their subordinates and boost their, their energy. So if your leader's really drained and burned out, you know, has anybody appreciated them lately at all? you know, that can be something that can be quite a boost, to leaders, especially leaders that maybe are struggling a little bit with their, their own sort of global, impression of their self worth, right? 

 So I think sending gratitude up to our leaders can be really valuable and important. And we would think it will trickle back down to the employees because if my leader has more energy, they're probably going to be, you know, less likely to snap at me or less likely to, have negative attitudes at work.

So I think we have to recognize that leaders are employees too, that they're humans too. And so they're deserving of gratitude. And then for the employee, we know that, from a lot, a lot, a lot of research, a lot of interventions, really good, work that's been done, outside of the workplace and even some inside the workplace, we know that when employees take time to think about things that they're grateful for, so maybe they write them down on a list or they make a mental note of those, that has a positive influence on their well being at work.

It actually increases their ability to feel that they are in control of their emotions. They have a sense of self control at work. So that was some work that, some of my colleagues, Lauren Locklear and, some other folks have done where they kind of just looked at what does it mean when when people keep a list of, what they're grateful for at work and do this for, two weeks. What do their co-workers say about their behaviors over those two weeks? Well, those people were a lot less rude than the people that didn't think about the things they were grateful for. It's because they had more self control. So I think gratitude is really doing these powerful things and we need to think about cultivating it, within ourselves, reminding us of what, you know, We need to be grateful for, but also expressing it to the people at work that deserve it.

You know, gratitude is not a panacea. It's not going to like gloss over any problem that exists in life, but it sort of opens up that pathway to recognizing what is good. What did somebody do that was valuable? And you know, what is something I can be grateful for? And I think, we can all practice gratitude, and we can all express it to people that are worthy of receiving that appreciation.

John: It's so important. And does it go both ways, Sara and Sharon, for compassion and gratitude? For example, I have employees, but I also have a leader, a boss above me, my CEO. Can I ask directly how they receive, certain praises or how they would like to? is that appropriate in the workplace right now?

Sara: I think it might depend on the relationships that you have with your current employees and the culture that exists in this current, in the current organization. But like Sharon said earlier, you know, it's not like we're going to find out a hidden secret and say, Oh, there's this dark side to self compassion and gratitude.

And we knew it and we shouldn't practice these things at work. Right? Like we know these are beneficial things. And I think. It largely stems maybe from perception or fear of how I will be perceived or fear that I'm not meeting or aligning with the expectations of how I'm supposed to show up at work. so, you know, I think leaders as well have kind of the power to be at the forefront of implementing this type of change too if that might not exist within your current organization, you know, like really start rewarding or championing employees who, you know, practice self-compassion or calling out people who are expressing their gratitude and appreciation, you know, maybe as opposed to rewarding an employee who worked all weekend and, therefore might've skipped out on family time because of it.

Sharon: Yeah, I don't think there's any harm, for instance, in a leader, asking an employee, How do you prefer to be appreciated at work? What makes you feel really valued?

We know that from motivation research, when people value the rewards that they expect to receive as a result of high performance, they're more motivated. And so I think, it's, it's all about understanding who you're working with. 

Understanding what employees value in the workplace, is going to unlock a lot of things in terms of you having a better ability to lead them, to motivate them, and, to appreciate them. I don't think you're ever going to go wrong by expressing verbal gratitude, but there might be other things showing appreciation in different ways that might, really, really, be meaningful to people.

So I think uncovering that just by asking, getting to know somebody better, is, is really important. the important step that, that people need to take,and then I just echo what Sara said, you know, I kind of mentioned this earlier, but, stop being fearful about expressing gratitude at work.

You don't have to say it perfectly. You don't have to be the most eloquent speaker or the best writer of, of gratitude emails. But expressing it is important. It is really sending the signal that you value and appreciate the person that you're thanking.

And that message gets across to them. Even if, you know, you're not the most eloquent writer, they're not thinking about that. They're just thinking, wow, like what a kind gesture that they recognize what I did for them. That makes me feel good. You know, that's typically what's going on in the heads of the people that you're thanking.

So I think if I had one big takeaway, I'd say let's increase gratitude at work by stopping worrying about, what other people are going to think of my gratitude because it feels good to express it and it feels good to receive it. So I think we just have to keep that in mind. to get out of our own way.

Yeah, yeah, let's get out of our own way. 

John: Yeah, so so beautifully articulated there the concept too of just not fearing how you do it But just actually expressing it just doing it So that that seems so important and that's a huge takeaway for me. 

The Future of Self-Compassion and Gratitude Practices

John: Well, Sara and Sharon we are coming to the end here, but I would love if we could maybe just speculate a little bit about the future and where do you both want to see the future of self-compassion and gratitude practices heading in the workplace, but maybe anywhere?

 Sara, maybe we can begin with you with self-compassion.

Sara: I guess my hope for this construct, you know, how it appears at work and in the literature is that we normalize it a little bit more, you know, I think we're starting to talk about the importance of mental health more in the workplace and realize, that the employee has their non-work self that also shows up to work.

And you know, that we experience suffering in a variety of forms. And I think the more that we can, you know, normalize and cultivate a culture that will foster and allow for this type of behavior and not, have policies or procedures, that can make us fear practicing it will be a really good step and in the future and, you know, moving forward that makes us put our struggles and, suffering experiences first so we can address them and show up better as an employee, a better person and just be a stronger human because of it.

Sharon: That's really, really well said, Sara. I guess where I'd like to see gratitude go is, I want us to get into understanding more of the nuances of gratitude in the workplace. You know, one of the things that I'm actually looking at now with some of my colleagues is whether, speaking of kind of getting out of our own ways, which we just talked about a minute ago, is whether employees are are bad judges of how appreciated they actually are at work.

Are they actually underestimating how appreciated they are and why might they be doing that? And, are women maybe more susceptible to doing that? Why might we be kind of neglecting to see or failing to see how valued we really are? Is it, you know, because we're just not seeing it.

We're somehow thinking that we're less appreciated than we are. Is it that managers just aren't expressing it frequently enough and it's not getting to us? so I want to understand what's going on there. You know, you mentioned earlier about, you know, is gratitude perceived as inauthentic?

We haven't really unpacked that yet. What would inauthentic gratitude look like in the workplace? How do we ensure that our gratitude, is authentic, you know, and is actually perceived as such so that employees actually feel appreciated? So I think I'd really like us to to understand more about how we can not only cultivate more gratitude at work, but express gratitude in a way that it actually makes people feel very appreciated and valued and then really demonstrating the, the tangible outcomes that happen, the positive benefits that happen when people feel appreciated. 

John: Beautiful. The future is bright, both for compassion and gratitude. And I'm so grateful as again, to, to keep repeating how important I believe truly both are. 

Current Projects and Future Directions

John: Yeah, so thinking as we are talking a bit more about this future, what are you guys working on right now? I think, Sara, you're defending your dissertation, if I'm correct, and Sharon, you're doing a ton of consulting work and all sorts of cool work with your professorship, but what are some projects that you're working on right now that are exciting both of you?

Sara: Yeah, so one project that we both are working on together that we're really excited about is investigating self-compassion from the lens of a leader. And to kind of help wrap our minds around this, we collected some preliminary interview data from some leaders, and we realized pretty quickly that leaders face a lot of challenges, that they're held to a different standard and operate under a set of different roles than the rest of employees.

And we can see also from the literature that leaders are really starved and taking the brunt of stress from above and below. And so how are they able to practice self-compassion when it might not seem as permissible? You know, we expect leaders to be self-sacrificial, which means, you know, they adopt a mindset that they're others focused and they put others needs ahead of their own.

And so it almost seems contradicting to the role of a leader to be able to take an inward approach when they're struggling at work. And that's what we've started to find in our preliminary qualitative data that we've collected from leaders. Leaders are like, what's self compassion? Or, we don't get that type of training?

Or, they don't feel it's appropriate? And so we're finding that there's all these different types of barriers that exist that are unique for leaders. They have this set of unwritten rules. And this isn't to put blame on organizations. You know, we're realizing that leaders also hold themselves to those same standards.

And this can be thought of as being couched within expectations. You know, there's expectations that need to be met. And these are the expectations that I perceive my organization has for me, the expectations that I have for myself as a leader, and the expectations that I perceive my followers have for me.

And so we're seeing all of these are barriers that kind of come up for leaders. And so we're starting to explore it from that angle, essentially, of what It means to be self-compassionate for  leaders.

Sharon: Yeah, and I think, I'm super excited about that project because I used to be a manager myself. And so I recognizethe experience of being a manager And I think one of the things that's interesting that has come up as part of that project is,first of all, like Sara said, a lot of the leaders are like, what is self-compassion?

I don't know what that means. They just can't understand what it is. It seems kind of like a foreign concept to them, but giving compassion to employees doesn't seem, doesn't seem to be quite foreign to them and actually oh, yeah, that's fully within the bounds of you know my responsibility as a manager is taking care of my subordinates. And so what we're finding is that some of these managers will say, you know Oh, well, that's not something I would necessarily express to my subordinates or maybe even to my own supervisor, but I'd probably feel safe expressing that to one of my peers.

So another manager that's a peer of mine. And I think that really, again, speaks to the importance of having high-quality relationships with people at work, you know, peers, of course we want to have good relationships with our own bosses and with our subordinates, but managers really do need that support system, and so having high-quality friendships at work, other people that they can lean on, I think are important because that's not somebody that's, you know, sort of judging you from a performance standpoint.

It's not somebody that you're supposed to, be looking out for as, as their leader. So I think it alleviates some of that pressure, and people feel a little bit more safe, kind of expressing self-compassion or talking about their struggles that they're facing with those peers. So I think that really speaks to the idea of workplace relationships.

And to me that that thread is really connecting to gratitude because gratitude really is a mechanism for building high quality relationships at work. and so, yeah, I think what I'm interested in is obviously the self-compassion project that Sara and I are working on. but I'm also just really trying to dive in and unpack that.

These nuances about, how do people prefer to be appreciated at work? And, how can managers align their gratitude with how people want to be valued? And then also looking at, are people sort of underestimating how valued they are at work? so that's what I'm excited about exploring. 

John: All incredible topics and wow, I do feel we really could talk about this forever because now like so many more questions just popped into my mind about like, Oh, as a leader who practices self-compassion and gratitude for themselves, therefore a better leader, does that correlate?

But we're going to have to save that for the next episode. Awesome. thank you so much, Sara. Thank you so much, Sharon, for the incredible work you both are doing and continue to do. And thank you for joining us on the human science podcast. We'll talk to you next time. 

Sara: Thank you. Thank you.

John: Thanks for listening to Human Science. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast, please share it with others or rate and review it. All the show notes and links can be found over at

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