Don’t expect a big thank-you at work this week. While people may express gratitude when they gather at Thanksgiving, showing appreciation is far from traditional at the office.
Research suggests that employees who feel appreciated are more productive and loyal. But that message hasn’t reached many of those in charge. Some bosses are afraid employees will take advantage of them if they heap on the gratitude. Other managers believe in thank-yous but are nervous about appearing awkward or insincere—or embarrassing the employee they wish to praise.
A common attitude from the corner office is “We thank people around here: It’s called a paycheck,” says Bob Nelson, an employee-motivation consultant in San Diego.
The workplace ranks dead last among the places people express gratitude, from homes and neighborhoods to places of worship. Only 10% of adults say thanks to a colleague every day, and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss, according to a survey this year of 2,007 people for the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., a nonprofit organization that sponsors research on creativity, gratitude, freedom and other topics.
Spouses, partners, children, parents, friends and mere acquaintances are up to four times more likely to get a thank-you, participants said. Even a salesperson or mail carrier usually rates better, says Janice Kaplan of New York, an author and editor who oversaw the survey.
More than half of human-resources managers say showing appreciation for workers cuts turnover, and 49% believe it increases profit, according to a study of 815 managers released last week by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Even the crustiest managers acknowledge that acknowledgment matters. Jack Welch, the former General Electric chief executive who is famed for his business philosophy of ceaseless, rigorous review and improvement, says he thanked 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,” he says.
Patricia Ellsworth worked hard to earn recognition from her boss on a former job years ago as a manager for a printing company: She set in motion improvements in training, performance reviews and goal setting, all of which supported his business goals. Still, she never received a thank-you, says Ms. Ellsworth, of Prescott, Ariz.
“I would be close to tears once a week,” she says.
Ms. Ellsworth’s boss was typical: Gratitude isn’t high on most managers’ to-do list. According to the SHRM study, more than half of the human resource managers surveyed say their front-line bosses don’t say “thank you” enough.
“Business schools definitely do not focus on such things,” says Dr. Nelson, an author, speaker and president of Nelson Motivation. He says many supervisors feel, “No one thanks me. Why should I have to coddle others?”
Others fear thanking employees fosters “a big head and an increased likelihood that they’ll want a raise,” Dr. Nelson says. Indeed, 35% of participants in the Templeton survey worry colleagues will take advantage of them if they express gratitude. For many supervisors, Dr. Nelson says, “it’s much easier to be the person who’s always finding fault. It feels more like being in charge.”
Still others simply aren’t grateful to their colleagues, an attitude that can turn an entire company into a no-gratitude zone. “The boss is the single most powerful factor” in employee attitudes, says Susan Heathfield, a Williamston, Mich., management consultant. If the boss never says thanks, “a culture is likely to develop that emphasizes the negative, where people sit around and complain.”
Employers have begun to place less importance on recognition programs. Although 77% of companies still have them, according to the SHRM study, several surveys in the past six years show a gradual decline in total offerings and employer cutbacks in existing programs.
Whatever programs are in place, individual managers’ efforts can have a big impact. Greg Peel, a regional sales manager for Paychex, Rochester, N.Y., a provider of payroll and human-resource services, says tailoring thank-you cards or awards ceremonies to suit employees’ personal goals and preferences has helped his team win sales awards.
Jason Ford, a district sales manager whose wife and children received a thank-you card from Mr. Peel praising his work, says the recognition increased his “long-term commitment to the company. It makes it all worth it, when you know your efforts are appreciated.”
Of course, it can take finesse to say thank-you at work in the right way, without embarrassing or annoying people. When Sandy Hackenwerth wanted to thank a project director on her team in front of her own supervisor, the employee protested, saying she would be embarrassed. Asked what she wanted instead, she requested use of Ms. Hackenwerth’s executive parking spot for a day. Ms. Hackenwerth, a vice president for a St. Louis consulting firm, complied.
Another employee scheduled for a public thank-you was so shy that he didn’t show up for work that day, Ms. Hackenwerth says. She attunes her thank-yous to employees’ preferences by having new workers fill out a questionnaire about how they like to get feedback.
Employees are skeptical of lesser efforts. A manager who is clumsy about saying thanks “can look insincere, shallow, superficial, manipulative, condescending or trite,” Dr. Nelson says.
But other bosses just need a push. Miserable over her previous boss’s seeming lack of gratitude, Ms. Ellsworth decided to ask him directly what she wanted.
She stopped by his office and told him she needed him to recognize her contribution, adding that she would stop by every Friday thereafter to recount her accomplishments, says Ms. Ellsworth, now a recruitment and retention manager for Home Instead Senior Care, Prescott, Ariz.
Her former boss, Bill Taylor, now an executive at a Mendocino, Calif., technology company, says that as a former Air Force pilot, he hadn’t needed much praise and “didn’t have a natural aptitude” for handing it out to others. Ms. Ellsworth’s plea enabled him to “figure out, ‘I’m not the same as everybody else,’ and treat them the way they want to be treated,” thanking not only her but others, he says.
Ms. Ellsworth says Mr. Taylor became a great supervisor who “inspired intense loyalty.” The result, both agree, was a great workplace relationship.
By Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal