Saying thank you to colleagues, staff members, associates and people more distantly connected to us is an annual year-end ritual for many people in leadership positions. Speeches, memos, newsletter articles and blog posts are often filled with lists of people's names and the events or actions for which they are receiving thanks. These gestures of appreciation are mostly nice and thoughtful, yet they can be accepted with a bit of cynicism by recipients, especially if this is the only time during the year when "thanks" have been provided.
Why say thank you? Well, we do it partly because we've been taught from a young age that it is the right thing to do. We learn to say thank you to those who offer us help, who give things to us and who provide guidance or support. Yet doing this at a young age is mostly because we are told to, not because we truly understand the power of saying thank you.
In the workplace there are many reasons why someone might say thank you. Sometimes words of appreciation are seen as political acts - which is what draws the most cynicism towards end-of-the-year missives.
As adults we have the opportunity to move beyond doing things because we are supposed to and to step away from thank yous that are political. The appreciation we share can be genuine and specific, sincerely conveying the positive emotional impact that someone's actions have had on our own life or on the lives of others.
Trustworthy leaders are great providers of genuine and sincere expressions of thanks. When they say thank you, it benefits the recipient of the thanks and also benefits themselves. It feels good to share a positive emotion with someone and a heartfelt thank you is definitely a positive emotion.
Saying thank you for a specific act or contribution also helps people to know that their leader knows who they are, is aware of the work that they do and knows of the value that a specific act has brought to the organisation - whether it was an act of customer service, extra effort to finish a project, service to a colleague needing help, or simply active participation during a brainstorming session.
A leader's expression of genuine and sincere appreciation can have a wonderfully positive effect on others. Take for example, Stew Leonard's, a regional grocery business in New England in the US and its chief executive Stew Jr. He had promised to help a customer find a costume for their child which was needed for school the next day, but inadvertently forgot to tell his team about it. While Stew was travelling to New York City, the customer went to the store for the outfit and Stew's staff prepared an exceptional costume for her child.
Stew was humbled by his staff's initiative and willingness to pitch in and get things done, and felt very honoured to have had a part in creating the workplace culture in which this simple act could happen. Some leaders wouldn't tell this kind of story — one in which they were asked to help, yet it was others who actually followed through.
Some might fear it would show them in a poor light. Yet for Stew, this story exemplified the kind of leadership he wants to see at Stew Leonard's: everyone is able to pitch in, and praise for a good act goes to the people who actually provided the service.
What lessons can we take from this?
1. Saying thank you sincerely is powerful.
2. Sharing thanks with the people who provided the service is critical to the appreciation being seen as genuine and to its having a positive impact.
3. Saying thank you can have absolutely no financial cost associated with it yet it can generate significant financial benefits for the organisation in terms of reputation and employee satisfaction.
4. Saying thank you generates positive feelings.
If there is one action you wish to take this year to strengthen your role as a trustworthy leader, try saying thank you more often. Do it with genuine care for those you are thanking, identify specifically the action or contribution you want to praise, and let the person you are thanking know about the broader impact of their actions. All of this will help you to understand deeply the power of saying thank you and will let those you thank know that you see them, know about their contributions and appreciate their efforts.
Amy Lyman is the co-founder of the Great Place to Work® Institute, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm with more than 40 affiliate offices around the world. She has spent close to 30 years studying organisations and groups, seeking to understand what helps some groups to thrive while others stall and fall apart