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How Gratitude Motivates Us to Keep Helping Each Other

November 20th, 2018

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Remember the last time you donated warm clothes to a homeless shelter and felt good about yourself? Or that time your friends helped you get through a difficult life problem after which you couldn’t help but feel extreme gratitude towards them?

A lot of traditional research has been done on why people help and how they feel after helping. You Jin Kim, assistant professor of Human Resource Management at the Fox School, goes beyond just that by exploring the role of the recipient of the help. Her research emphasizes how demonstrating gratitude, as well as the helper’s feelings of pride, interact to encourage repeated helping.

In her paper, “A Dyadic Model of Motives, Pride, Gratitude, and Helping,” which was accepted for publication by the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, Kim demonstrates that the motives of the helper interact to predict pride via initial helping whereas recipient attributions of helper motives predict recipient gratitude in response to being helped. This interaction of emotions (i.e., pride and gratitude) influences any subsequent helping by the helper, making them both active members of the social exchange.

Kim points out that the helper’s motives drive their initial actions. She highlights two positive motives: “autonomous motives,” where individuals help because they value doing so, and “other-oriented motives,” where individuals help because of their concern for others. These motives often lead to voluntary helping that is intended to benefit others.

These motives affect the perception of the recipient and the level of appreciation they feel. “Recipients seek information about helpers and helping contexts because they seek to understand why others help them,” Kim reasons. For example, an employee might choose to cover a shift for a sick worker because he or she truly cares about the coworker’s welfare, leading to the recipient attribute this action to the helper’s selfless (what Kim classifies as autonomous or other-oriented) motives. In such interactions, the recipient feels more gratitude toward the helper.

Kim also considers that the motives may not always be altruistic. She elaborates, “They could be doing it because of impression management, career enhancement motives, and not truly directed towards benefitting others.” For example, a helper could choose to teach a peer a new skill with the goal of transferring an undesirable task to this peer. Such interactions fail to evoke the feeling of pride or gratitude in either party.

Kim highlights cases where, although the helping motive was genuine and the helpers experienced authentic pride, they did not engage in repeated helping unless recipients expressed their gratitude. “Unlike economic exchanges, social exchange returns are not specified in advance, and so reciprocity is not guaranteed,” says Kim. “A simple ‘thank you’ makes a lot of difference.” Thus expressing gratitude is very crucial in encouraging the helper to continue helping others in the future, making the recipient an important influencer of the interaction.

The results of these studies have practical implication for managers. “Managers need to understand why helping is being provided and create a work environment where employees do not feel pressured to help and that helping is voluntary,” says Kim. “It should not be related to any type of organizational decision, such as a promotion or vacation days.”

Importantly, gratitude also has positive implications for recipients. Kim says, “Managers also need to emphasize the benefits of showing gratitude and encourage recipients to communicate their gratitude when receiving help has been positive.” Such reciprocative interactions create a positive environment at a workplace, subsequently improving the efficiency and lowering the turnover intentions of all employees.

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