Dr. Hee Young Kim was building a career in investment banking after earning her bachelor’s in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Nearly five years in the field, she realized she was much more interested in watching her coworkers than producing financial models.
“I always found myself observing interpersonal relationships rather than doing my job,” she says, laughing.
Now, 15 years and a pandemic later, Kim is an expert in organizational behavior, or how people interact in groups. She earned her doctorate in management from New York University. Much of her research focuses on cross-cultural differences and status within the workplace, but the pandemic influenced her latest line of inquiry.
Kim and her fellow management scholars conducted two studies about how public gratitude affected less visible essential workers — correctional officers, teachers, social workers, and transportation and warehouse workers. They found that those who felt thanked for their work were more likely to participate in positive recovery activities such as exercising or meditation. Those who did not favored more negative activities such as drinking, smoking or using illegal drugs.
“Public gratitude really matters,” Kim says. “You saw people clapping for nurses and doctors. They are obviously our heroes, but there were people who were forgotten. They also risked their lives but did not nearly get the love or visibility of other workers.”
I teach because our students have incredible potential and can make a difference."
Why focus on gratitude?
I don’t know if I would have been a gratitude researcher had it not been for the pandemic and observing so much of this very salient gratitude toward some types of workers and not others. I’m now looking at other work about gratitude. How does receiving gratitude make you feel? How can it help people better cope with work stressors?
What are some lessons leaders can take from this research?
When I worked in industry, there were superstars who were highly admired and treated special. Some of the most important work gets done by those who dutifully show up and do their work but aren’t recognized. The effect that we’ve seen on marginalized essential workers may also be applied to everyday folks, who may not be superstars but are doing their jobs. We need to pay more attention to these workers.
Can anyone be a good leader?
People think management and leadership are common sense, but they are not. If that was the case, everyone would be a great manager. People think you’re either born a leader or not, but these things can be learned. Research tells us that some qualities of a good leader are setting an example and presenting a compelling vision. Leaders are the ones who are supposed to show us the way and motivate us. People want to work for something that’s bigger than just a paycheck.