Saying "Thanks" In The Workplace

At the General Hugh Shelton Leadership Forum last week, an executive from Cisco Systems made an interesting comment. He said that we are in the season of expressing gratitude that begins with Veterans Day. He's right. I find myself having a stronger focus on being thankful during this time of year than any other. It also caused me to wonder how well we do in saying "Thanks" to others in the workplace. I was disappointed by what I found. Consider the following statistics from a study at Berkeley:

  • Only 30% of employees thank co-workers multiple times a week
  • Only 20% thank their boss several times a week
  • 29% never thank a co-worker
  • 35% never thank a boss

If those statistics aren't surprising enough for you, reflect on what Sue Shellenbarger wrote in a WSJ article about a survey conducted for the John Templeton Foundation:

  • The workplace ranks last among the places people express gratitude, from homes and neighborhoods to places of worship
  • Only 10% of adults say thank you to a colleague each day
  • Only 7% express gratitude to a boss each day
  • A salesperson or mail carrier is more likely to get a "Thank You" than a coworker

And yet, we ALL know the impact of someone expressing genuine appreciation for our efforts. Even Jack Welch, the sometimes caustic leader of General Electric, was quoted as saying, "I thank employees on every plant tour and facility visit. If you don't do it, you don't have a culture. You are just a bunch of bricks and mortar."

The reasons for not expressing gratitude range from being too busy to not knowing how to do it tactfully to fear of being seen as a "suck up." Indeed, Jessica Stillman wrote a great article entitled, 5 Times You Shouldn't Say Thank You, in which she says, "...saying thanks isn't always the magic bullet for better relationships."

Like learning to speak well before an audience or clearly articulate our perspectives or feelings, I think expressing thanks is a learned skill.

So is the solution to NOT say thanks for the support, guidance, advice, or help from others who we spend a huge percentage of waking hours? I don't think so. Like learning to speak well before an audience or clearly articulate our perspectives or feelings, I think expressing thanks is a learned skill. The desire to learn the skill, I believe, has to first grow from a heart of gratitude, recognizing that we don't achieve success without the help of others. I love the quote my friend Ed Colvin shared with me from his grandmother: If you aren't giving back, you are a thief. Others helped get you where you are and you need to do the same." I think that starts with saying thanks.

To get us all (including me) started having a stronger "attitude of gratitude" in the workplace, here are a few suggestions:

Saying Thanks To Coworkers

  • Be specific with your thanks. Use phrases like, "I really appreciate the way you ______" or "It was so helpful to me when you ________." Being general makes the praise lose its meaning and may seem like you are getting ready to ask for something.
  • Make it personal. This includes telling them how their efforts have specifically benefited you, reduced your stress, or improved your performance. And nothing beats a genuine face to face "thanks." Looking them in the eye and saying it has more impact than you might imagine. If you can't say it in person, choose the next most personal option.
  • Put your gratitude into action even before saying thanks. Do something of specific benefit to them as a way of saying thanks.

Saying Thanks To Your Boss

  • Remember that words trump gifts. The right words, spoken in the right moment, will go farther than any gift you can give. If you can't speak to them personally, write a note. I talk to so many managers and leaders who tell me of their "file" where they keep cards ad notes from employees. They speak of opening the file when they are discouraged or needing to refocus on what's important about their job.
  • Be specific to how their action was of benefit to your professional growth and/or success in your job.
  • Keep it short. Sharing thanks can be a very emotional experience. A long discourse can make both of you uncomfortable. A few words, wisely chosen, will let your boss know your sincere gratitude.

Saying Thanks To Your Employees

  • Make it about you. Letting the person know how their actions were of help to you in your role as a leader or manager is critical. Your personal approval of their efforts is critical. Letting them know how their work is contributing to the success of the organization is important too, but what carries more weight is how much they have YOUR approval.
  • Be specific. As a boss, I try to consistently express my gratitude to Belinda, my programs manager. Too often, however, I find myself saying, "Thanks for your work today" as she is leaving. Recently I have started identifying more specific things for which I am grateful. It might be something as simple as getting me a spreadsheet I needed before I was ready to review it or taking an extra 10 minutes to find the right hotel for a trip.
  • Make it about them. Recognizing their interests, passions, or values in your thanks is important. Saying, "I know you value honesty, and it meant so much when you were willing to admit..." goes a long way in telling that employee you see them as more than just a warm breathing body available to get work done. If you are giving gifts as a way of saying thanks, think about what their interests are-NOT what you want them to have.

As the statistics at the beginning of this article show, we have a LONG way to go to improving the culture of gratitude for the efforts of others in the workplace. Changing behaviors now is easier than ever because, as the gentleman from Cisco said, "We are in the season of expressing gratitude." And I would be amiss if I didn't end by saying, "Thanks for using your valuable time at work to read my article. As someone who values strong relationships, I am grateful that you share a similar interest and desire to improve in this area."

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone.

-G.B. Stern