Powerful people in the upper echelons of organizations have much to be grateful for, but new research from Cornell indicates that higher-level people feel and express less gratitude toward their subordinates.
In the newspaper, “Thanks, but no thanks: analyzing the relationship between relative power and gratitude“, Alice Leeassistant professor at the ILR School, and her co-authors, Eric Anicich of the University of Southern California and Shi Liu of Columbia University, find that the power dynamic between two individuals is a crucial predictor of feeling and of expression of gratitude.
In the research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Bulletin of Personality and Social Psychologythe authors found that:
- People with more power express less gratitude towards others than people with lower power when they receive a favor;
- People with more power actually feel less gratitude for the favors they receive than people with less power;
- People with less power feel and express more gratitude than people with higher power due to increased concern for interpersonal relationships;
- Higher-powered people who receive favors feel and express less gratitude than lower-powered favor recipients due to an increased sense of psychological entitlement.
“Overall, our work suggests that expressions of gratitude can go a long way, especially when coming from someone above you, and suggests a number of takeaways for people looking to increase the flow of gratitude in their organizations,” Lee said. “First and foremost, leaders should not underestimate the impact of expressing gratitude when they are in a position of power. Some managers may feel that expressing gratitude has little effect on their followers; however, our findings, coupled with a growing literature in the field, suggest that recipients of gratitude feel much more positively than the expressers think. This is particularly the case in today’s remote work climate. widespread caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which inevitably creates greater communication challenges.
To arrive at these results, the researchers conducted four studies to explore the effects of relative power on expressions and feelings of gratitude.
In Study 1, they measured objective power and the amount of gratitude expressed in the acknowledgment section of published academic papers. To do this, the researchers obtained records of every article published in the Academy of Management Review over a 40-year period and used the biographical information to assess the level of organizational power of the authors – graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, professor assistant, partner. professor, full professor – and recorded the number of people and groups thanked in each article.
Results from Study 1 showed that low-powered authors expressed more gratitude in the acknowledgments section than higher-powered authors.
In Studies 2 and 3, researchers used online survey participants, assigning them to different power levels and subjecting them to a series of organizational role-playing scenarios.
Through these studies, researchers learned that higher-powered individuals expressed less gratitude because they felt more entitled to receive favors and benefits from others, while lower-powered individuals expressed more gratitude because that they felt a stronger incentive to cultivate close interpersonal relationships with others.
Finally, in Study 4, the researchers analyzed 136,215 comments exchanged between 12,681 Wikipedia editors, whose levels of formal power varied. The researchers used software to measure the amount of gratitude each editor expressed in their written comments to other editors on Wikipedia’s “talk pages,” where editors discuss ongoing improvements to articles.
Again, the researchers found that higher-level “admins”—those with unique page editing privileges—expressed less gratitude than non-admin editors who had less editing power.
“The responsibility for increasing the expression of gratitude should not be confined to managers,” Lee said. “All members of an organization can work to amplify the contributions of low-powered employees, especially since these individuals may feel the most hesitant to seek recognition for their own contributions. Publicly amplifying the contributions of low-ranking employees lower can help those in power “see” them and can help lower-ranking employees receive the recognition they deserve.
Julie Greco is a communication specialist at the ILR school.