Never underestimate the power of a simple thank you

Could expressing appreciation be a core part of management and leadership training?

Thank you for taking the time to read this article which I spent time researching and writing. I really appreciate it.

If that sounds unusual, it’s partly because giving (and receiving) thanks isn’t as common as it should be. This is a shame because a bit of appreciation doesn’t cost much but it adds up to an awful lot in keeping workers motivated and productive. 

According to research from recruitment firm Robert Half, giving thanks is one of the top three factors that keep Australian employees happy. 

Peter Heslin, an associate professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, says appreciation is not only inherently gratifying, it also fulfils some basic psychological needs.

“When people experience gratitude they tend to feel more connected to whoever has appreciated their work … and also to the job they are performing,” Heslin says. 

“It gives them a sense of momentum, like they are actually achieving something and they are more motivated to behave in ways that are appreciated.”

The impact of a simple ‘thank you’ goes way beyond the merely polite. A joint study from the universities of California and Miami (where location-wise they have a lot to be thankful for), is one of many studies that show how gratitude makes people feel more positive, strengthens relationships and leads to more pro-social behaviours and life satisfaction.

This positivity can have a viral effect, with multiple studies suggesting that the feel-good factor leads to people having healthier lifestyles: exercising more, sleeping better and a reduction in illnesses – all of which makes employees less likely to suffer burnout or depression. 

Perhaps most remarkable is the idea that the experience of gratitude may actually change the brain. Researchers from Indiana University found that the more we practise gratitude the more our brain becomes accustomed to giving it and being open to receiving it. 

But where and when does appreciation fit in our technology-driven world of work? Does a smiley-face emoji really cut it? 

'Appreciation can have the effect of fostering self-regulation in the workforce'


Motivating employees

Nameeta Bhole is a senior project manager and an MBA (Executive) student at AGSM@UNSW Business School who has worked in Australia, the US, UK, Germany and China. Bhole thinks that while younger people give praise more openly and freely than perhaps previous generations, it can be less meaningful because it’s so ubiquitous. 

“My experience is that senior colleagues show appreciation that is more considered and specific. As a younger person I almost fed off being thanked; it was a validation,” she says.

The satisfaction of receiving gratitude is a driver motivating employees to work better and work harder.

“Appreciation can have the effect of fostering self-regulation in the workforce,” says Heslin. 

“People anticipate the likely consequences of their future actions and set performance goals for themselves to act and behave in ways that are likely to be appreciated: both tangibly (in terms of increased pay and opportunities) and intangibly (in terms of being recognised for having contributed something worthwhile).” 

Take one concrete example from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where researchers studied two groups of fundraisers who were soliciting donations over the phone from alumni. 

Only one group was praised and thanked by their supervisor for their efforts and as a result went on to make 50% more calls to raise money than did the other group which hadn’t been shown appreciation. 

Given that such a little gesture had such a big effect on outcome, we may wonder why expressing gratitude isn’t a core part of management and leadership training.

'We constantly have opportunities to build bridges with people – or not. It all depends on whether we make gratitude a priority'


Going through the motions

Professor Adam Grant, a US psychologist and one of the authors of the Wharton study, told the Harvard Business Review that expressing gratitude may suggest a neediness or showing vulnerability “in a situation where I didn’t have the expertise or the confidence to solve my own problem”.

Heslin believes another barrier may lie in a certain cynicism around showing gratitude at work. Unless it is given in an authentic way, it can be counterproductive.

Employee recognition programs, for example, are widely viewed as 'going through the motions'. These are often outsourced to a technology provider and can have a peer-to-peer focus where fellow employees nominate co-workers for ‘rewards’ that may or may not have a competitive edge.

Although there aren’t figures for Australia, globally the number of companies offering employee rewards packages suggests that this is a big market.

Paul White, author and consultant on workplace appreciation in the US, says these programs have mushroomed in recent years with 80% of all US organisations now having an employee recognition program of some kind. 

Yet, at the same time, employee engagement in the US sits at only 34% according to Gallup’s annual survey, and globally a staggering 87% of employees are disengaged from their work.

It may be that these reward programs are a natural response to the fast pace and intensive workloads employees are experiencing today and, as Heslin suggests, “time pressure means that stopping to thank people is not a high priority task. People get what they need and then press on with striving to achieve the next objective.” 

Perceived authenticity

Can contracting out appreciation, or allowing technology to do the thanking for you ever be effective?

White says that when done well, reward and recognition can have positive outcomes in terms of improving rates of absenteeism and reducing staff turnover. But, more commonly, mistakes are made in the implementation.

For example, a top-down, business-wide reward and recognition program “automatically undermines perceived authenticity”, he says. “Or when the gratitude comes from someone who has no relationship to the recipient, making it clear that this is an organisational action, not from one person to another individual.” 

Thanks communicated to a team isn’t always effective either, particularly when it ignores the person who stayed late to get the project over the line.

White advises companies to get input and feedback from staff about how they receive thanks.

According to Heslin, “A gold standard way of expressing appreciation is to indicate precisely what someone did well, what positive impact it had, and why that impact matters. We constantly have opportunities to build bridges with people – or not. It all depends on whether we make gratitude a priority.”


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