Two Words That Rarely Travel Down the Hierarchy: Thank You!
Imagine opening your email inbox and seeing a new message from your boss with the subject: “Thank you!” For many people, this scenario is difficult to envision. Why is that?
Powerful people in the upper echelons of organizations have plenty to be grateful for—they tend to earn the most money, command the most respect, influence the most important decisions, and employ the largest number of people (whose job, arguably, is to support them). To most of us, it seems obvious that they should feel grateful. But do they feel and express gratitude?
The answer often seems to be no. Although some research has found that higher-power people are more likely than lower-power people to agree with statements indicating they have much in life to be thankful for in an abstract sense, decades of research on the psychology of power suggest that power is likely to influence people in ways that nudge them toward feeling and expressing less gratitude when experiencing or reflecting on specific situations with identifiable benefactors. This is too bad, since research shows that simple expressions and feelings of gratitude can go a long way toward strengthening relationships and improving organizational functioning—goals that leaders likely value. Unfortunately, this conspicuous absence of gratitude could potentially undermine relationships and contribute to toxic work environments.
So, we examined the often anecdotally experienced—but rarely scientifically studied—relationship between power and gratitude. Does power actually influence feelings and expressions of gratitude?
We began by measuring the amount of gratitude authors expressed in the acknowledgments section of published articles in an academic journal over a 40-year period. We found that the higher the authors’ professional rank (e.g., Assistant Professor, Full Professor, etc.), the fewer people they thanked in their published articles. In other words, higher-power authors expressed less gratitude than lower-power authors.
Then we analyzed 136,215 comments exchanged among 12,681 different Wikipedia editors, whose level of formal power varied. Specifically, we used a software program to measure the amount of gratitude each editor expressed in their written comments to other editors on Wikipedia “talk pages” where editors discuss ongoing improvements to articles. Again, we found that higher-power “administrators”—who have unique page editing privileges—expressed less gratitude than non-admin editors who have less editing power.
As intriguing as these findings were, we could not rule out an important alternative explanation: Perhaps lower-power people express more gratitude because they are on the receiving end of larger or more frequent favors. Maybe they just have more to be thankful for on a daily basis.
To rule out this possibility, we conducted an experiment where we held everything the same except the participant’s power level. Participants did various tasks while playing the role of a lower-power subordinate or a higher-power boss in an organizational activity with other “employees” who were ostensibly distributed across the country. While participants were working on an especially tedious writing task, a chat box appeared on their screen with a message from another participant, who said they were either the participant’s boss or subordinate. (In reality, one of the researchers played this role and followed a script.)
During the chat, the undercover researcher provided a helpful favor: They offered to complete that tedious writing task so that the participant could move on to work on a less difficult task. The participant had the chance to respond to the undercover researcher and then also indicated how grateful they felt for the favor. Consistent with our earlier findings, those in the higher-power boss role expressed less gratitude while chatting with the “other participant” than those in the lower-power subordinate role, and they also reported feeling less grateful for the favor.
So, the next question was why do higher-power individuals express and feel less gratitude? To answer this question, we put a different group of participants through another organizational role-play.
We learned that higher-power individuals expressed less gratitude because they felt more entitled to receive favors and benefits from others, whereas lower-power individuals expressed more gratitude because they felt a stronger pull to cultivate close interpersonal relationships with others.
A Puzzling Dilemma
Those who arguably have the most to be grateful for and the most to gain by feeling and expressing gratitude are nonetheless the least likely to feel and express gratitude. Therefore, finding ways to get more gratitude flowing down the hierarchy should be a priority for researchers and companies alike (and has already been considered in some research). After all, most of us want to live in a world where everyone’s inboxes are overflowing with words of appreciation. Indeed, a simple “thank you”—especially when coming from someone above you—can go a long way.
For Further Reading
Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00439.x
Anicich, E. M., Lee, A. J., & Liu, S. (2021). Thanks, but no thanks: Unpacking the relationship between relative power and gratitude. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/01461672211025945.
Magee, J. C., & Smith, P. K. (2013). The social distance theory of power. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(2), 158-186. DOI: 10.1177/1088868312472732
Eric Anicich is an Assistant Professor in the Management and Organization Department at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. His research examines the forms and functions of social hierarchy within groups.
Alice Lee is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) School at Cornell University. She explores social influence and its key features in her research.