Powerful people feel, express less gratitude

Powerful people in the upper echelons of organizations have plenty to be grateful for, but new Cornell research indicates that higher-power individuals feel and express less gratitude to their subordinates.

In the paper, “Thanks, But No Thanks: Unpacking the Relationship Between Relative Power and Gratitude,” Alice Lee, assistant professor in 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 expressing gratitude.

In the research, which will publish in an upcoming issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the authors found that:

  • People with more power express less gratitude to others than lower-power individuals when they receive a favor;
  • People with more power actually feel less gratitude about the favors they receive than individuals with less power;
  • People with less power feel and express more gratitude than higher-power individuals due to experiencing increased concern about interpersonal relations;
  • People with more power who receive favors feel and express less gratitude than lower-power favor recipients due to an increased sense of psychological entitlement.

“Overall, our work suggests that gratitude expressions can go a long way, especially when coming from someone above you, and suggests a number of takeaways for individuals 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 in a position of power. Some managers may believe 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 expect. This is especially so in the current climate of widespread remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which inevitably creates greater challenges for communication.”

To come to these findings, 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 acknowledgements section of published academic articles. To do this, the researchers obtained the records of every article published in the Academy of Management Review over a 40-year span and utilized the biographical information to assess the authors’ level of organizational power – graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor – and recorded the number of people and groups thanked in each article.

The results of Study 1 showed that lower-power authors expressed more gratitude in the acknowledgements section than higher-power authors.

In both Study 2 and Study 3, the researchers utilized online survey participants, assigning them to different power levels and putting them through a series of organizational role-playing scenarios.

Through these studies, the researchers learned that higher-power individuals expressed less gratitude because they felt more entitled to receive favors and benefits from others, while lower-power individuals expressed more gratitude because they felt a stronger pull to cultivate close interpersonal relationships with others.

Finally, in Study 4, the researchers analyzed 136,215 comments exchanged among 12,681 Wikipedia editors, whose levels of formal power varied. Researchers 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, the researchers found that higher-power “administrators” – those who have unique page editing privileges – expressed less gratitude than non-administrative editors who have less editing power.

“The responsibility of increasing gratitude expression does not have to be confined to managers,” Lee said. “All members of an organization can work to amplify the contributions of low-power employees, especially as these individuals may feel the most hesitant to seek recognition for their own contributions. Publicly amplifying the contributions of low-ranking employees can help higher-power people ‘see’ them and may help low-ranking employees receive the recognition they deserve.”

Julie Greco is a communication specialist in the ILR School.

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