Melissa Miller of Gratitude Investors: “Great things never came from comfort zones”

“Great things never came from comfort zones.” As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Miller. Melissa Miller is the owner of Gratitude Investors, a business focused on increasing engagement and happiness for individuals and companies through gratitude-based appreciation programs. They […]

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“Great things never came from comfort zones.”


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Miller.

Melissa Miller is the owner of Gratitude Investors, a business focused on increasing engagement and happiness for individuals and companies through gratitude-based appreciation programs. They use science-based research and positive psychology to increase employee retention, productivity, and performance for leaders and corporations. Melissa’s educational background makes her uniquely qualified to work with companies that want to take their recognition programs to the next level and attract top talent. Melissa holds B.A. degrees in Economics and Psychology from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I like people. I have formed friendships in a department store while shopping for dresses. I’ve heard peoples’ relationship histories on airplanes. It boils down to I am interested in people’s life stories. A few years ago, two of my aunts and I created The 180° Letters, a letter-writing kit to make sharing stories and gratitude simple. I loved working in appreciation and was drawn to the business sector from my professional life and education. Because I love people and connection, helping companies foster happy, fulfilled individuals is my company’s mission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I discovered that when you are highly motivated for things to change in your life, you can push out of your comfort zones and create a new path. At the beginning of my career, I jokingly like to think I was similar to Olivia Pope, from Scandal, without the murder and intrigue. Essentially, I “handled” things. I took situations that called for creative solutions and made them happen. I found the hard-to-get items, pulled off the surprises, and made the impossible a reality. And although every day presented a challenge, I was comfortable there. Despite that, I examined what I wanted for my future and acknowledged I wanted more than being complacent. When I started my business, it was intimidating to step into all the new roles I needed to master. I practiced gratitude daily to lessen my fears and forced myself to try new things. As an entrepreneur, I wear many different hats, and it falls on me to push out of my comfort zones to do jobs I’ve never done before. Building up the ability to take on a daunting situation, think outside the box, and handle it is essential.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have created gratitude-based employee engagement programs for the workplace. Many companies have outdated, underperforming recognition programs that don’t spur full employee engagement. We want to change that. Because of the pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine everything about how we do our jobs and run our companies. Gratitude Investors uses science-based research and positive psychology to increase employee engagement, productivity, and performance for leaders and corporations. Excellent engagement programs will generate happier workplaces and up to $2400 in profits annually per employee. Even if you haven’t considered using appreciation in the workplace, it’s never too late to try a new approach or hit the reset button. Dare to try something different. As we like to say, we are experts in happiness dividends. Our program creates engaged employees and an optimum place to work, whether that is in person or remotely.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Essentially most companies struggle to create a work culture that encourages the development of abundant, fulfilled employees. The study cited in Forbes found 53% of employees are unhappy in their jobs. There are multiple contributing factors, but let’s take a look at the most prominent ones.

  • Lack of appreciation: Our primary need as humans, after safety, is to feel appreciated. Why is appreciation so vital to us? It creates feelings of being valued, seen, and liked. Yet, Gallup found 65% of workers received no recognition in the workplace last year. There is a clear disconnect between what employees want and what leaders deliver. Ultimately this disparity has costly implications for employee retention and the bottom line. Fifty percent of employees reported they intend to look for a new job because they feel under-appreciated and undervalued (American Psychological Association). Lack of appreciation is the number one factor of why employees leave their jobs.
  • Lack of meaning in work: Everyone wants to have a purpose in their work, and know what they are doing daily has impact and meaning. When organizations fail to provide a clear company purpose, and show how daily work ties to it, workers struggle to find meaning. Jobs begin to revolve around just earning a paycheck and not the organization’s purpose. People also have personal dreams and goals. When there are no obvious career advancement opportunities, there is stagnation. Employees want to see the big picture on two levels. First, they need to understand the purpose and vision of the company. They also must see how they can advance and achieve their personal career goals within an organization.
  • Lack of connection: When we come to work, we don’t check our personal lives at the door. Everything from our lack of sleep, worry over a parent, and joy at a child’s graduation comes right into the conference room with us. An engaged work culture values the complete, human employee and builds connection through communication and appreciation. Colleagues celebrate life events just as much as professional ones.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

First, let’s dig deeper into the concept of an “unhappy workforce”. It’s about more than just creating happy employees; it is about creating engaged employees. Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to an organization. You typically have three types of employees in your workforce — actively disengaged, disengaged, and engaged.

The actively disengaged group is the easiest to identify and, on average, is 14% of your workforce. These workers aren’t just unhappy in their jobs; they are resentful their needs aren’t being met, and are acting out their displeasure. Actively disengaged workers display toxic behaviors, monopolize their manager’s time, demonstrate no initiative, and miss more workdays. Every day these employees detract from what their engaged coworkers accomplish. They are a liability to a company’s bottom line.

Engaged employees typically make up 36% of the workforce. These employees actively work to move your organization forward. They are loyal to the company’s vision and purpose. Engaged employees create big payoffs for their companies. They have 20% higher sales, less staff turnover, 18% higher productivity, 12% higher customer ratings, and 41% less absenteeism (Gallup).

The final group is your silent majority and harder to identify because they are adept at blending in. Fifty percent of your workforce is likely disengaged. On the outside, they are doing their job, but they are not connected to your company or intrinsically motivated. They put time, but not innovation, into their careers. They may surf the internet more, socialize too much, or lack curiosity and initiative. They don’t hate their job, but they are just showing up for the paycheck. It can be confusing to employers because some workers in this group will still achieve success, but that is only because of their personal work ethic. Companies will find it harder to innovate or increase productivity over time if this isn’t addressed.

So, what does it mean for your company if 64% of your workforce is not engaged? There are big implications to the financials, production and health. The research shows the impact of a disengaged or unhappy workforce is unequivocally negative across-the-board in all these areas.

  • Turnover costs have enormous implications for your organization. Consider that it costs, on average, 150% of an employee’s annual compensation to replace them. Replacing an employee earning $100,000 a year could cost you up to $150,000 to replace (Columbia University).
  • Gallup found $300 billion is lost in productivity in the US annually due to disengaged employees.
  • Higher absenteeism and more accidents on the job lead to diminished productivity.
  • According to Flexjobs, 75% of workers in 2020 have experienced burnout.
  • 80% of workers are not working as hard as they would if they were shown more appreciation (Gallup).

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Great companies make their employees the priority. Research paints a clear picture of what employees want for engagement; most companies just aren’t providing it. An effective engagement program addresses these five needs and more.

  1. Choose appreciation and gratitude as your currency. Most traditional recognition programs reward performance once or twice a year. Companies need an engagement program that emphasizes appreciation for the whole employee. Leaders may believe it’s unprofessional to bring things like gratitude and appreciation into the workplace, yet these create the environment workers desire. By increasing positivity in the workplace, employees show 23% fewer fatigue symptoms and are 10x more engaged (Achor). REAL LIFE APPLICATION: Researchers at Wharton School divided university fundraisers into two groups. The first group made calls to solicit alumni donations in the same manner they used in previous campaigns. Working on a separate day, the second group received a motivational pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the employees she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the group who received her message of gratitude made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not.
  2. Capitalize on connection. If we consider that, on average, individuals spend around 40 hours per week at work, it is imperative they feel connected and supported through positive social relationships. Human Resource Management found in 2016 that relationships with colleagues were deemed the number one contributor to employee engagement, with 77% of respondents listing workplace connections as a priority. Building stronger connections isn’t a step-by-step process; it’s more of an ongoing organizational mindset. Look for ways to see the humanity of the people around you.
  3. REAL LIFE APPLICATION: Zappos has created a company culture that emphasizes teamwork. Managers at Zappos are expected to spend 10 -20% of their time improving teamwork and building relationships across their team. Make purpose a priority. Companies must clearly define why they exist and show the value in what they do. Leaders also must find out what fuels their workers. When you connect the organization’s purpose to the individual, you create a shared journey and give employees a sense of meaning in their work. This also benefits the bottom line. Harvard Business Review found 58% of companies experience growth of more than 10% after creating and communicating a clear purpose. REAL LIFE APPLICATION: USAA call centers employ 20,000 people who are engaged and go the extra mile for customers. How did they create that culture? They connect workers to the company’s purpose in an immersive four-day company culture orientation. USAA’s purpose is to provide extraordinary service to people who have done the same for their country. Customer service agents make a promise to do the same. This mission is reinforced at town hall meetings, where feedback and ideas are welcomed from all levels of workers.
  4. Generate opportunities to grow. Employees need advancement options and frequent feedback to reach personal goals. Quantum Work’s 2019 Best Places survey found when employees see professional growth and career development opportunities, they are 2.5 times more likely to be highly engaged. Only 36% of people are engaged when they can’t see a growth path, versus 89% of workers are engaged when advancement opportunities are clear. In a recent study by Linkedin, 94% of employees say that they would stay longer at a company invested in their career development. REAL LIFE APPLICATION: Acceleration Partners adopted a “Dream” program that grants wishes for 10 employees annually. This company already practices goal setting with employees as part of their training and development. However, CEO Robert Glazer took it a step further by asking employees to submit their life goals and greatest wishes. Instead of giving bonuses at the end of the year, the money goes in a fund to directly impact employees’ lives: personal trainers, skydiving lessons, dream vacations — one employee was even reunited with a long-lost family member.
  5. Empower your employees with agency. Cornell University found there is 66% less turnover in companies that provide more agency to workers. Those companies also grow 4x faster than organizations whose employees have less influence over their work. If you provide the opportunity for people to figure out the best paths to the goal, rather than give instruction, you will see them perform. This is not an all-or-nothing approach. Begin by giving workers the autonomy to handle minor decisions, gradually building their knowledge and skills to make more significant decisions on their own later. When we empower employees, they accomplish their jobs in ways more inspired and innovative than in any traditional structure. And your company will still attain conventional goals related to profits, productivity, and growth. REAL LIFE APPLICATION: The Skimm’d, a New York media company, empowers employees to take risks and fail safely. They do a weekly call-out called “Failure of the Week” when an employee tries something new or different, but it doesn’t hit expectations. Then they discuss what could be handled differently and look for other ways to produce a win next time.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Society must move away from the expectation that people are motivated to work just by a paycheck and reconsider our traditional, heavily-weighted focus on performance only. We spend so much time at work that it’s vital that the workplace engages us and allows us to grow. Every person wants the opportunity to be fulfilled and happy. We must find ways to celebrate and leverage our whole selves at work. Both individuals and companies benefit from this change in work culture.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would say my management style mirrors that of a cheerleader. I love building relationships to encourage and motivate people. Thinking outside the box and organizing are two of my strongest skills. I am free with praise and encouragement. Helping people embrace possibilities for themselves, which they may not have seen before, is rewarding. Nothing makes me happier than providing opportunities for advancement and growth.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am fortunate to have many people who have helped me on my journey. You know the theory that you are the sum of the five people closest to you. If you want to level up, surround yourself with people who do the same. I am incredibly blessed to have a diverse group of friends that keeps pushing me to pursue my dreams. They provide opportunities for me, cheer me on, and show me how to achieve more. Cards and funny t-shirts have appeared in my mailbox to encourage me. They get on the phone with me and talk business for hours. My friends have introduced me to their peers for business opportunities. Seeing their success shows me it is possible to build something from scratch with hard work, but most of all, a friend’s belief that I could do great things gave me courage when I was starting. I am grateful to have strong connections with a wonderful circle of friends that believes in my vision for Gratitude Investors and push me to attain it.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As my circle of influence grew, I’ve been exposed to so many fantastic people and job opportunities. People are always looking for great individuals to hire, and I love connecting them. At this point, my night job could be a head hunter. It is extremely rewarding to watch people provide more for their families, start careers they wouldn’t have dreamed of, and level up if given a chance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Great things never came from comfort zones.” is my favorite life lesson quote. It jumped off the page to me as soon as I read it. I realized at that moment I had been holding myself back by remaining in situations that felt comfortable or easy. Playing it safe and staying small seemed like the adult, “smart” thing to do. It’s easy to justify because anxiety over change can hold us in our comfort zones. We create so many reasons why something is impossible or the wrong move to justify our lack of movement. I knew the life I wanted to have, but to get there would require me to take a leap of faith and face some of those fears. I needed to start doing the things that scared me. I practiced gratitude to lessen my fears, bolster my self-worth and see the possibilities for my life. I am thankful every day for many amazing things, but I know even greater ones are coming. It’s why I took a chance and began building my company to create the type of life I want.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We spend one-third of our lives working. An outdated model of thinking is unprofessional to bring gratitude or compassion into the workplace. As we have discussed in this interview, studies show appreciation and gratitude are vital to creating the very type of workplace environments people actually want to work in. One of our most fundamental needs as humans is to feel appreciated. Leaders and companies who understand this principle, and practice gratitude, create productive, engaged employees. I would love to see a corporate mentality where leaders implement this approach in all phases of work-life from the hiring process until retirement.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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