Saturday, May 24, 2014

Gratitude and Grace at Work

I've written about grace and positive psychology before. But just to review, grace in antiquity was not only the initial gift of the giver, but also included the response of the receiver (gratitude). New Testament scholar David deSilva explains,
The Three Graces in Botticelli's Primavera

The fact that one and the same word can be used to speak of a beneficent act and the response to a beneficent act suggests implicitly what many moralists from the Greek and Roman cultures stated explicitly: "grace" must be met with "grace," favor must always give birth to favor, gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this ethos for the ancients was three goddesses, the three "Graces," dancing hand-in-hand in a circle. Seneca's explanation of the image is most revealing: 

Some would have it appear that there is one for bestowing a benefit, one for receiving it, and a third for returning it; others hold that there are three classes of benefactors -those who receive benefits, those who return them, those who receive and return them at the same time....Why do the sisters hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself? For the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course in anywhere broken, and it has most beauty if it is continuous and maintains an uninterrupted succession....Their faces are cheerful, as are ordinarily the faces of those who bestow or receive benefits. They are young because the memory of benefits ought not to grow old. They are maidens because benefits are pure and holy and undefiled in the eyes of all; [their robes] are transparent because benefits desire to be seen (Ben. 1.3.2-5; LCL, emphasis mine). 

From this, and many other ancient witnesses, we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of "grace." An act of favor and its manifestation (the gift) initiate a circle dance in which the recipients of favor and gifts must "return the favor," that is, give again to the giver (both in terms of a generous disposition and in terms of some gift, whether material or otherwise). Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.[1]

This is the context in which the New Testament authors wrote. Grace was meant to be met with gratitude. And it is the recognition of grace and the gratefulness for it that can allow us to flourish.

According to the Greater Good Science Center (University of California, Berkeley),

survey of 2,000 Americans released earlier this year by the John Templeton Foundation [showed that] people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. And they’re not thankful for their current jobs, ranking them dead last in a list of things they’re grateful for. It’s not that people don’t crave gratitude at work, both giving and receiving. Ninety-three percent agreed that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed, and only 18 percent thought that gratitude made bosses “weak.” Most reported that hearing “thank you” at work made them feel good and motivated. But here comes the messed-up, mysterious, and interesting part: Almost all respondents reported that saying “thank you” to colleagues “makes me feel happier and more fulfilled”—but on a given day, only 10 percent acted on that impulse. A stunning 60 percent said they “either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year.” In short, Americans actively suppress gratitude on the job, even to the point of robbing themselves of happiness.

Apparently, the place of employment has been deemed off-limits to the workings of grace and the virtue of gratitude. I highly doubt this barrier to gratitude is inherent in the organizations themselves, but has more to do with the slight cultural stigma toward business as "profane" or "unholy." As Michael Porter has pointed out, businesses have (often) bought into what society thinks about them. Yet, we should remember the medieval folklore behind Enoch's theosis. Relying on his teacher, the kabbalist Rabbi Isaac of Acre (1250-1340) described it as follows:

He said that he received a tradition that Enoch was an ushkaf, that is, he sewed together shoes, and with every incision and incision that he made using the stitching awl he blessed God with a whole heart and perfect intent, extending the blessing to the emanated Metatron.  Never did he forget during even so much as a single incision to bless, but would always do so, until because of so much love he was not, for God took him and he merited being called Metatron and his virtue is very great indeed

It was Enoch's love and gratitude toward God in the midst of his vocation that led to his exaltation. As a pious cobbler, he bound the lower physical world with the upper spiritual world together with every stitch, collapsing the distance between the holy and profane. 
When it comes to the workplace, Charles D. Kern--Professor of Applied Behavioral Science at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management--has written,

Grateful behavior can facilitate positive interpersonal and community relationships that may in turn influence other key outcomes. Effectively applied in the workplace, for instance, gratitude may positively impact such factors as job satisfaction, loyalty, and citizenship behavior, while reducing employee turnover and increasing organizational profitability and productivity. In addition to the external benefits of gratitude accruing to recipients and their organizations, research surrounding gratitude identifies several positive impacts that await individuals who express gratitude to others. In turn, these personal benefits may also work to the advantage of organizations.

...By increasing optimism and adaptability, improving health, decreasing stress, and perhaps lengthening lives, can gratitude also play a role in sustaining the health and survival of organizations? It would certainly be good news if these personal benefits of gratitude could in turn increase organizational citizenship behavior in particular, since empirical evidence indicates that citizenship actions within organizations positively influence a number of key organizational outcomes. These positive organizational outcomes include improved work group productivity, enhanced sales team performance, profitability, and operational efficiencies.

Gratitude doesn't just belong in church or in the act of prayer. It belongs at work and in the performance of one's job. 


1. David A. deSilva, "Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament," Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999): 39-40.


  1. Nice, Walker, I think these are astute observations. Although I wholeheartedly agree that it is possible to find grace and gratitude at work, I think your claim that "I highly doubt this barrier to gratitude is inherent in the organizations themselves" misses a crucial difference between commercial and work relations and interactions and other kinds of interactions. The difference, of course, is that with my family, neighbors, and friends I am much less inclined to be fired if I am not performing adequately. This fact that our work relationships are economically grounded in a way that other relationships are not *does* make a "crucial difference." Or so I would argue. (Behavioral economists have famously found crowding effects in this regard with respect to trust, reciprocity, and voluntarism, and I'm basically just pushing back a bit because I'm reading your post in that light, FWIW....)

    1. Thanks for reading, Robert! Your reference to findings in behavioral economics is important. And I don’t dispute them. My point is that we often have a predetermined way in which we view our “economically grounded” relationships. Granted, the incentives are applied a bit differently, but working toward a common purpose is what you find in *any* organization: for-profit, non-profit, church, government, etc.

      But what jumps out at me in the management literature is its application of positive psychology. Those things that lead to increased well-being in our non-work relationships *also* apply to our work relationships. And not only does it increase individual well-being, but the well-being of the entire company. I think this holds major implications for not only our work life, but our spiritual life as well. Managers and employees alike would do well to take note of findings like this.