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Study: Gratitude May Diffuse a Difficult Boss's Toxic Behavior

If you think your boss is a monster, researchers might have some surprising advice for you: Show a little gratitude.

A new study from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business suggests that gratitude is a valuable tool for employees in the workplace – especially for those who report to an insecure, belligerent or otherwise difficult boss.

Yeri Cho, a Ph.D. candidate at USC Marshall, and Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at Marshall, set out to discover whether power paired with threatened competence would lead to denigration of a partner. They also tested whether the partner's expression of gratitude would alleviate this toxic tendency.

"Maybe if powerful people received gratitude expression from their subordinates and felt socially valued, they would reduce their aggression toward others," Cho said.

Giving Gratitude

During the study, Cho and Fast told research subjects they were being divided into two-member teams and that their other "teammate" was in another room and would describe via written notes how to assemble an object. Then they were asked to review a draft of the instructions – ostensibly written by their partner, but really written by the experimenter – and provide feedback.

Cho and Fast randomly divided the subjects into "high power" and "low power" positions and told the high-power subjects that they were to offer feedback as well as evaluate their partner's work (both of which would affect potential monetary rewards). They told the low-power subjects that they were to analyze and provide feedback.

The subjects were next delivered their notes from their supposed partner, which either contained no expression of gratitude with the feedback, or the same feedback with the line "Thank you so much! I am really grateful."

After viewing the partner's message, participants had the opportunity to denigrate their partner's competence by rating the degree to which their partner seemed "competent, intelligent, capable, incompetent unskilled likely to succeed and likely to fail."

The results reveled that the high-power participants who felt their competence was threatened denigrated their subordinates. When the subordinate expressed gratitude, however, this pattern disappeared.

Perceived Social Worth

In the second experiment, Cho and Fast sought to assess "whether perceived social worth in the eyes of subordinates accounts for the ameliorating effects of gratitude expression on threatened power holders' tendency to denigrate others."

Subjects were asked to write a description of a picture so someone else could draw it and again were divided into high- and low-power roles. After passing on their feedback, some of the high-power participants received a note that included an expression of gratitude, while the other set received no gratitude. The subjects then were asked to think about their partner and how competent and socially desirable they were. According to Cho, the people with power who felt incompetent denigrated their partner if they didn't receive any gratitude.

"When people have power, they feel the need to meet demanding role expectations, and when they don't feel competent they lash out with aggression toward others. To assuage this effect, we found that affirming the ego of the power holder ameliorated the aggression," Fast said.

While showing appreciation and gratitude for a difficult boss might work as a quick fix, researchers are not convinced it is sustainable.

"We think that this can be an effective short-term strategy to enhance a subordinate-boss relationship," said Cho. "As a long-term solution, we are not sure if this is going to be effective. The main long-term solution should come from the powerful themselves, as they are the ones with the power to control the situation."

Cho and Fast's article recently was published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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