As we express our gratitude to the front line workers, I was reminded of a lesson learned and a project that I was challenged with from one of the most dynamic executives that I have had the privilege to work for during my days in human resources. What I learned from MJ was that a simple and easy gesture of writing thank-you notes to staff, significantly impacted employee engagement, retention, customer satisfaction, repeat, and new business to the bottom line. At first, like many, I underestimated the impact that a simple note of thanks had in the workplace.
Besides miscalculating how grateful the recipient was to receive one, what I learned was that this simple gesture was a cost-effective way to deliver reward and recognition, which in turn builds critical employee engagement. High-performing organizations realize that people are more engaged and more willing to go the extra mile when leaders frequently express their appreciation—verbally and/or in thank you notes.
Why are they so important?
As leaders, we often assume that someone is already aware of our feelings of gratitude. But a personalized thank you note is one of the very best ways to validate for an employee that he or she is doing worthwhile work and making a difference. The note immediately connects the employee to purpose, which is essential in the workplace today. For many employees making a difference and receiving recognition is one of the main reasons they stay with a particular company.
Thank you notes re-recruit employees, a critical competency when you consider the importance of employee engagement and the cost of high turnover. We frequently hear stories about the power of thank you notes from people who have given them and received them. I can recall the story of an employee who had decided to take a new job. Just before she gave her notice, she came home to a thank you note from the CEO and choose to stay instead. She found herself valuing the culture and didn’t want to leave it.
The employee engagement impact.
As an HR consultant, I typically conduct HR audits for our clients and find that many organizations suffer from a “we/they” culture (finger-pointing and shifting blame without ownership of actions) that blocks organizational alignment and achievement of measurable goals. Thank you notes put everyone on the same side. They also provide an opportunity for leaders to connect an employee’s behavior to organization-wide standards of behavior or to the organization’s mission, vision, and values.
Successful supervisors and leaders quickly learn the principle of “managing up.” For example, Karen, a new customer service representative, does a great job troubleshooting a customer issue. Karen’s supervisor notices and shares this with the CEO, asking him to send a thank you to Karen. The impact of this thank you note benefits everyone. First, the CEO is happy to learn the supervisor has trained the CSR well on how to resolve a customer issue. Karen is also thrilled to be recognized by the CEO, and hear that her supervisor thought enough of what she did to let the CEO know about it. But even more importantly, Karen has been re-recruited by her direct supervisor. She feels valued and builds trust with her supervisor.
1000 Thank You Notes in 90 Days
Earlier I mention that MJ had issued me a challenge. The challenge was to come up with a way to send out 1000 thank you notes to 1000 employees within 90 days. Not one to shy away from a challenge, I provided every member of the management team with thank you note cards, a quota of thank you notes to be written based on their department’s size, thank you note guidelines, deadlines and what I refer to as an “ethical bribe.”
The notes had to be specific, handwritten, reviewed, recorded, and mailed to the employee’s home by the HR department. Simply writing, “Thank you for doing a great job” would not “make the cut” – it comes off as vague and insincere. Instead of, “Bob told me you were especially sensitive to the needs of a particularly worried family last Tuesday after their daughter’s surgery. Thank you for being such a difference-maker.”
Anyone can dash off a quick thank you by email, but to receive a handwritten note in the mail is a precious gift. What we learned was that employees show their parents, their kids, their friends, neighbors; they even post the note on the refrigerator. They keep them forever.
So if they are so valuable, why don’t more of us send them?
What I have learned is that leaders miscalculate how grateful the recipient is likely to be. Second, leaders often assume that someone is already aware of the feelings of gratitude. The last thing that seems to hold leaders back is that they worry that the recipient will feel awkward or that they will not get the words just right. With that, they play it safe and choose more impersonal expressions of gratitude, or not do it at all.
An Important Leadership Habit
Hardwiring leadership habits and new behaviors takes time. My experience shows that by assigning leaders, a weekly number of thank you notes to write, and validating monthly who has sent thank you notes, prevented the notes from falling off the “to-do” list. Once leaders learned first-hand what a difference a simple thank you makes in employee engagement, it becomes a new habit. The ultimate goal is to train leaders to seek out and notice the positives.
Before I forget, I did mention something about not being shy and an “ethical bribe.” In exchange for each department head meeting their quota of thank you notes, they would be invited to a rooftop cocktail party to celebrate the meeting of their goals. To say the least, those who did not meet their goal where visibly missed.
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