How to Give a Meaningful “Thank You” | HBR Ascend

Forget the empty platitudes; your star employee is not a “godsend.” They are a person deserving of your not infrequent acknowledgment and worthy of appreciation and respect. When was the last time you thanked them — really thanked them?

In my line of work, I frequently communicate with CEOs and their executive assistants, and nowhere is the need for gratitude more clear.

After one CEO’s assistant had been particularly helpful, I replied to her email with a grateful, “I hope your company and your boss know and let you know how valuable and special you are.”

She emailed back, “You don’t know how much your email meant to me.” It made me wonder — when was the last time her boss had thanked her?

This happens frequently. For instance, a few years ago, I was trying to get in touch with one of the world’s most well-known CEOs about an article. His assistant had done a great and friendly job of gatekeeping. So when I wrote to her boss, I included this: “When I get to be rich, I’m going to hire someone like your assistant — to protect me from people like me. She was helpful, friendly, feisty vs. boring and yet guarded access to you like a loyal pit bull. If she doesn’t know how valuable she is to you, you are making a big managerial mistake and YOU should know better.”

A week later I called his assistant, and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m just following up on a letter and article I sent to your boss to see if he received it.”

His assistant replied warmly, “Of course I remember you Dr. Mark. About your letter and article. I sent him the article, but not your cover letter.”

I thought, “Uh, oh! I messed up.” Haltingly, I asked why.

She responded with the delight of someone who had just served an ace in a tennis match: “I didn’t send it to him, I read it to him over the phone.”

Needless to say, that assistant and I have remained friends ever since.

Yes, CEOs are under pressure from all sides and executives have all sorts of people pushing and pulling at them. But too often, they begin to view and treat their teams, and especially their assistants, as appliances. And a good assistant knows that the last thing their boss wants to hear from them is a personal complaint about anything. Those assistants are often paid well, and most of their bosses — especially the executives to which numbers, results, ROI and money means everything — believe that great payment and benefits should be enough.

What these executives fail to realize is that many of those assistants are sacrificing their personal lives, intimate relationships, even their children (because the executive is often their biggest child).

There will always be people who think that money and benefits and even just having a job should be thanks enough. There are also those that think they do a great job without anyone having to thank them. But study after study has shown that no one is immune from the motivating effects of acknowledgement and thanks. In fact, research by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino has shown that saying thank you not only results in reciprocal generosity — where the thanked person is more likely to help the thanker — but stimulates prosocial behavior in general. In other words, saying “thanks” increases the likelihood your employee will not only help you, but help someone else.

Here’s a case in point: at one national law firm, the Los Angeles office instilled the routine of Partners earnestly and specifically saying, “Thank you,” to staff and associates and even each other. Everyone in the firm began to work longer hours for less money — and burnout all but disappeared.

Whether it’s your executive assistant, the workhorse on your team, or — they exist! — a boss who always goes the extra mile for you, the hardest working people in your life almost certainly don’t hear “thank you” enough. Or when they do, it’s a too-brief “Tks!” via email.

So take action now. Give that person what I call a Power Thank You. This has three parts:

  1. Thank them for something they specifically did that was above the call of duty. For instance, “Joe, thanks for working over that three-day weekend to make our presentation deck perfect. Because of it, we won the client.”
  2. Acknowledge to them the effort (or personal sacrifice) that they made in doing the above. “I realize how important your family is to you, and that working on this cost you the time you’d planned to spend with your daughters. And yet you did it without griping or complaining. Your dedication motivated everyone else on the team to make the presentation excellent.”
  3. Tell them what it personally meant to you. “You know that, rightly or wrongly, we are very much judged on our results and you were largely responsible for helping me achieve one that will cause my next performance review to be ‘over the moon,’ just like yours is going to be. You’re the best!”

If the person you’re thanking looks shocked or even a little misty-eyed, don’t be surprised. It just means that your gratitude has been a tad overdue.

from HBR Ascend