Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
Gratitude and pride motivate employees more than feelings of obligation
By Robert Eisenberger, Xueqi Wen, Dianhan Zheng, Jia Yu, Zihan Liu, Jing Zhang, Lei Wang, Tae-Yeol Kim, Sara Krivacek, Thomas J. Zagenczyk, Min-Kyu Joo, Salar Mesdaghinia, Deog-Ro Lee, and Tae-Hyun Kim
Everyone wants to work in a supportive workplace. To feel that the organisation you work for understands your needs, acknowledges your value, and supports you in reaching your career goals is the bedrock of a favourable employee-organisation relationship (EOR) – a setup that benefits both parties greatly. Past research has generally accepted the reciprocity norm (i.e.: the employee feels obligated to support the organisation that has consistently supported them, thus continuing the cycle) as the main psychological driver for EOR, but our latest research examines how gratitude and pride are powerful motivating forces as well.
Through the analysis of three field studies involving several hundred Korean and American employees, our results demonstrate that EOR isn’t driven purely by the social knee-jerk reaction of reciprocity (you did something for me, so I must do something for you). Nor is the pragmatic wish to continue and elevate the cycle of mutual support the only key driver of favourable EOR. Our findings show that the full picture of what motivates employees to reward supportive employers is, in fact, a much warmer one.
Firstly, when employees feel that their employer supports them and cares about their well-being (i.e.: they feel high POS – Perceived Organisational Support) then their gratitude contributes to higher job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and extra-role performance (going ‘above and beyond’ their formal job role). Crucially, as a mechanism for producing these positive outcomes, gratitude was a stronger influence than felt obligation in our studies.
As for pride, our results found that it contributes to higher job satisfaction and organisational commitment in a similar manner to gratitude. However, pride appears to be less influential than gratitude in encouraging higher extra-role performance. This may be because feelings of gratitude increase an employee’s interest in the wellbeing of their employer – making them want to go the extra mile – whereas pride is a feeling based on personal accomplishments, where less credit (hence, less of an impulse to put in extra effort) goes to the wider organisation.
These results demonstrate how the positive, prosocial and ‘pleasant’ feelings of gratitude and pride may be more influential in driving employees’ performance and commitment to their organisation than the ‘tit-for-tat’ reciprocity norm of felt obligation. Such feelings of obligation are grounded in the desire to maintain long-term equity – the employee wants to support and invest themselves in the organisation so that the organisation will notice and respond in kind. This form of self-interest is a normal and understandable part of the employer/employee relationship, but it doesn’t account for feelings of genuine appreciation, warmth and goodwill that employees develop for employers that truly look after them and align with their core values.
In practical terms, employers need to recognise that employees’ gratitude is a substantial contributor to the EOR, and it should be encouraged at every opportunity. While standard rewards such as paid leave or merit-based raises can be useful, employees feel gratitude more deeply when employers truly understand their needs and act accordingly. Leadership behaviours and human resource practices can be invaluable in generating this kind of deeper gratitude, by addressing the specific needs of individual employees. Tailored benefits such as mental health breaks, financial security programmes or longer-than-industry-standard paid maternity/paternity leave can all effectively demonstrate how the organisation understands its employees and recognises their value.
If done correctly, with an attitude of genuine concern for employees’ wellbeing, the organisation can benefit substantially from their grateful, proud employees who stand ready to commit deeply to their employer’s goals, perform at their best, and even go beyond the call of duty.
This article refers to a study entitled, “Does Felt Obligation or Gratitude Better Explain the Relationship Between Perceived Organizational Support and Outcomes?” published in the Group & Organization Management here.
Tae Yeol Kim is Professor of Management and Philips Chair in Management at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile here.