Four Simple Steps to Build a Culture of Gratitude


A life well lived is a life spent living your values. And values are just an understanding of an individual’s fundamental ways of being. Bringing that into the corporate context, companies are no different. Brand values aren’t just content for a website; they’re guidelines and opportunities to demonstrate what you are as a company.

I co-founded Tribute in 2014 with a clear set of values: to spread gratitude and meaningful connection to the world. We help users collect and organize meaningful group video messages for life’s most important moments, from birthday, to weddings, to end-of-life memorials. We’ve helped people, businesses, and brands send five million videos in over 90 countries. 

By 2019, my co-founder and I had built a company culture based on gratitude. We knew there was potential for more growth, but we’d plateaued. We began to pursue side hustles and rely on a core team to run the business rather than actively managing it ourselves. Then COVID hit.

When the world shut down, so did social events. No one could physically attend birthday parties, graduations, weddings, or celebrations with the people they loved. All of a sudden, Tribute had a corner on the market. Word of our idea spread, and Tribute’s site traffic doubled day after day. We experienced 30x YoY growth from 2019 to 2020. To accommodate such rapid growth, Tribute swelled from a 5-person team to a 50-person team within two months.

They say it takes five years to become an overnight success. Tribute is an example of this, largely thanks to our culture of gratitude. But this is more than just lip service. For us, gratitude remains a core part of Tribute’s internal mission and vision. As we expand, we continue to build upon our culture by keeping in mind four key principles: intentionality, consistency, leadership, and authenticity. For anyone to succeed in building a culture of gratitude, here are some ways to begin putting these principles in practice.

#1: Become More Intentional about Consistent Recognition

I had always worked in small startups with less than 10 people. In small settings, it’s easy to feel connected, see what others are doing, and acknowledge their successes on a casual, ongoing basis. Larger businesses don’t have this luxury. Once you have around 40 people, it’s harder to know people and show appreciation in a typical workday. Building the groundwork of gratitude is essential. Having a system that demonstrates appreciation and gratitude across the board becomes much more important as companies move out of the startup phase. 

As the Tribute team grew, we thought we had figured out how to show recognition throughout the organization. We created “Shoutout Fridays” in a Slack channel to put successes and recognitions into the public square. We opened the floor for recognition at the start of meetings and other events. We even created company-wide Tribute montages for employees to mark certain milestones.

But we were only accomplishing one side of the gratitude equation. We were doing a great job with tenure recognition by celebrating major milestones and events, but our approach to in-the-moment recognition needed some help. Since tenure recognition has never been correlated with increased job satisfaction, I knew something had to change. If we were on a mission to facilitate human connection with gratitude, it was worth finding a solution that helped us  improve and achieve recognition at scale.

That led us to Bonusly.

When you can attach recognition to a company’s core values, it reinforces positive behavior.

Many companies specialize in employee recognition, and many platforms have a straightforward, easy-to-use interface. Most of them also provide adaptability and flexibility for growing teams. Even the price efficiency was relatively comparable.

What set Bonusly apart was the product's ability to tie recognition back to our core values: gratitude, resourcefulness, openness, meaningful communication, and support. Bonusly allowed us to attach recognition to these values and reinforce positive behavior.

#2: Cultivate Meaningful Relationships and Motivators

Tribute’s employees already know the importance of recognition. After all, they champion gratitude in the work they do every day. It’s powerful work—82% of people cry when getting a Tribute montage. We don’t take that lightly.

Our team's collective values make us an influential proponent of change. Our Bonusly adoption went well because we worked hard to cultivate relationships with employees that “get it,” but that’s not just because of our line of work. Anyone who understands the value of recognition will contribute to your company culture in a major way, regardless of what industry you're in. 

With our Bonusly setup, employees are allotted a set amount of points each month. Employees can give these points to others as a “thank you” for a variety of reasons, and the recipients can redeem those points for rewards. Point allowances reset at the beginning of each month, and managers don’t receive more points than anyone else, which puts everyone on the same playing field.

A flexible recognition style allows teams to display gratitude and recognition from every perspective: horizontally, from the top down, and from the bottom up.

Leveling the playing field is key as it allows us to express gratitude and recognition from every perspective: horizontally, from the top down, and from the bottom up. The more that employees share gratitude with their bosses, leaders, and each other, the more comfortable other employees become in doing the same. Pretty soon, gratitude begins to flow into all departments and across levels of hierarchy. 

Rewards can also support recognition. We use Bonusly to provide tangible gifts or options such as days off of work, gift cards to well-known brands, or 1:1 coaching sessions with a senior-level executive. Because monthly point allowances don’t roll over, employees are incentivized to actively seek out opportunities to recognize and one another. 

At the end of every week, we remind Tribute employees to give out their remaining Bonusly points. At the end of every month, we host team parties to celebrate the people who have shown up for us and those who have given away all of their points. The consistent touchpoints and rituals we've built up around Bonusly help our team double down on our habit of gratitude and build stronger relationships.

One of my favorite examples was on Employee Appreciation Day. We had a solid objective: if 80% of our team actively engaged with Bonusly on the scheduled date, we'd double everyone's Bonusly points and add a raise to their next pay cycle. Suddenly, everyone was simultaneously engaged in the practice of gratitude. We have plans to do more one-off events, including something similar for Boss’ Day on October 16th.

Bonusly has become one of Tribute’s essential rituals for creating a culture that values gratitude. It’s strengthened relationships between peers, supervisors, and direct reports. 

#3: Practice What You Preach, Starting from the Top

A culture of gratitude has to start at the top. If leaders talk about appreciation but don’t demonstrate it, then appreciation won’t become an established part of company culture. The Tribute team practices what we preach. We spread our techniques, tools, and ideologies about gratitude to others, including corporate bodies. 

If leaders talk about gratitude but don’t display it, it won’t become an established part of company culture.

I never thought I’d be invited to corporate wellness retreats to talk about using gratitude to cultivate peak performance. But I do, and I’ve seen so many people who talk but don’t walk. Consciously approaching recognition and facilitating deeper connections are two things any leader can do to drive discretionary effort, engender hard work, and engineer safety and trust.

Making work more enjoyable and boosting opportunities for recognition and gratitude goes a long way toward retention, which is on everyone’s minds right now. Leaders must understand that behavior is one of the most fundamental elements of an engaged, connected, high-producing culture. People value connection and gratitude and will work harder for a company with that embedded in its culture. 

#4: Authenticity Matters

It’s as simple as it sounds: Be authentic.

The recognition you provide should be grounded in something meaningful. Blanket statements don’t cut it. We can help people be more concrete by sharing prompts on Bonusly to create more specific and meaningful recognition points. We might suggest a statement like, “share one thing you’ve learned from this person,” or “here’s one thing you do that I really appreciate.”

Gratitude is more than just saying “thank you.” It’s acknowledging hard work, effort, and a job well done.

Acknowledgment is not mandatory. If forced, it may do more harm than good. Focus on appreciation that is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) so it resonates with everyone on your team. Remember that recognition is more than just saying “thank you.” It’s acknowledging hard work, effort, and a job well done. Everyone has a part to play, and Bonusly empowers our employees to call out when they see something worth acknowledging. It reminds us all that our work is vital to the company. We can actively express our values every day.

Building culture and showing gratitude might seem like a massive initiative when you’re just starting out, but tools like Bonusly make it easy to do this at scale. Bonusly has allowed Tribute to live our values on the public stage. We can show employees they matter in a specific way—no matter where they sit in the company hierarchy.