How to Become Great at Thanking Your Employees (at Thanksgiving and Beyond)

Thanking people actually fosters more behavior worthy of thanks.

You are more likely to leave a large tip if your server writes a thank you note on your restaurant bill, according to a psychological science research article published in the Sage Journals. Gratitude, argue the authors, makes benefactors aware that their actions are kind and appreciated, and encourages “prosocial behavior by influencing psychological states that support generosity and cooperation.” People whose efforts are appreciated are more willing to rise to task when future opportunities arise than people whose efforts are not. This willingness extends beyond reciprocity to include helping third parties that were not involved in the initial interaction, in a positive social outcome the authors call upstream reciprocity.

The benefits of gratitude are also transferrable to teams. By consistently demonstrating that you value your employees and their contributions, you create for them a positive emotional experience that translates into a positive team experience. Psychological studies show that when people spend time together in groups, their emotional experiences simultaneously help set the emotional norms of their groups and are regulated by their group’s emotional norms.

What’s your group or team’s positivity score?

Individuals with positive emotional experiences set positive norms for their groups, and these norms grow positive or negative based on whether the members continued emotional experiences are positive or negative. Over time, individuals conform to their group norms, resulting in emotionally similar individuals in groups whose “higher positive group affect” leads to “less conflict and more cooperation” or “higher negative group affect” with “lack of coordination and less prosocial behavior.”

Given the potential of gratitude to create a collaborative workplace based on cooperation, generosity, and positive employee experiences, why do most employers and companies wait until the end of year to appreciate employees, hold holiday parties, and pay performance-based bonuses?

If you wait for that special time of year, you’ll be too late. 

Companies fail to appreciate that the positive outcomes of gratitude are synergistic and cyclical and thus dependent on consistent and repeat application over a long period of time. For your employees to want to rise over and above on behalf of other employees and customers, expressions of gratitude and shows of appreciation need to be a consistent part of company culture rather than single instances or year-end events.

To build a workplace culture in which the expression of gratitude is embedded and cycles of positive outcomes are continually replicated and reinforced, you lead by example and you empower your managers and team leaders to model after you.

Make the expression of gratitude 1) personal, 2) thoughtful and 3) explicit.

Be attentive to your employees’ contributions so that your expressions of gratitude are straightforward and serve a second function of providing direct positive feedback about specific tasks and results.

Get to know your employees so that you can tell which expressions of gratitude are most effective and responsive to their needs. Your employee that’s a sport fan might love a ticket to a local sporting event, your employee who’s a new parent might appreciate a work from home day, but no employee will appreciate a vague ‘good job’ note written on your behalf by your secretary.

To avoid making assumptions about what your employees will appreciate, establish an open channel of communication to discuss what they value and give them differentiated choices.

Express gratitude with more opportunity.

In an interview with Fortune in 2012, Larry Page stated that his job as a leader was ensuring that people at Google had “great opportunities” and felt that they were having  “a meaningful impact” and  “contributing to the good of society.” With such a commitment, it’s far from miraculous that Google makes most best places to work lists.

Express your gratitude to employees with opportunities that fuel personal and professional growth and set them up to succeed. Send them to professional conferences in recognition of jobs well done. When core objectives are accomplished, thank them by creating a conducive environment for “job and citizenship crafting,” the productivereshaping of aspects of work such as responsibilities, colleagues, attitudes and extra-mile tasks in ways that align with an employee’s strengths, interests, values and sense of meaning.

Be fair and consistent.

Make your company’s cultural tenets clear. Follow through with consistent guidelines and actions that demonstrate how, when and for what values, practices and goals, gratitude is practiced. Tell coherent brand stories whose language and message link employees’ success stories to your vision and values.

For instance, do not encourage your employees to go the extra mile in customer service then berate them for incurring high costs for the company when they do. Rather, set expectations about how high costs should be while appreciating that how high you set the limit truly communicates to your employees how much your company values customer service.

Empower managers, team leads, and employees to show gratitude (and give each other cash bonuses!)

Great Places to Work, a review platform that writes data-based reviews about workplaces has examples of companies that have empowered their managers and employees to thank each other. Where ZestFinance allows its employees to give $150 gifts to other employees that surpass expectations, Venterra Realty Management Company has  “WOW programs”designed to foster employee and customer experiences that include a $50,000 for managers to appreciate employees.

Whatever your budget, collaborate with everyone in your organization to design creative ways for team leaders and peers to recognize and appreciate each other.

Recognize both teams and processes.

When your appreciation systems focus on individual results, you risk nurturing unproductive competition. Match your goals of a cooperative workplace with an appreciation system that thanks teams and recognizes the inputs and processes that yielded the final results.

Yet choosing between cooperation and competition does not have to be a zero-sum game. A series of psychological studies showed that kids playing in cooperative teams that were in competition enjoyed shooting free throws than kids that were solely competing, cooperating or playing alone. Reward employees for teamwork while recognizing the best team for competitive results.

In a 2017 human capital trends report by Deloitte, almost 80% of executives thought employee experience important but only 22% thought their companies excelled at creating a differentiated employee experience. Create a culture of gratitude that fairly recognizes employee contributions and thoughtfully rewards them with gifts and opportunities that have personal meaning for them, and you are a step closer to excelling at giving your employees a fulfilling and differentiated experience.


About the Author

Nkatha Gitonga is the Founder at Yakutti, a storytelling marketplace for trendsetting women to discover chic jewelry and co-design bespoke pieces with ecoconscious and impact-driven designers and brands.



The Switch Editorial Team.

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