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HR Leadership Column

Leveraging the Power of Thank You

While every Management 101 class emphasizes the importance of employee recognition, far too often we fail to express our gratitude to executives and employees alike, often at a high cost to organizations.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
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Earlier this year, my husband -- who works for a large technology company -- was offered an early-retirement incentive package. It was offered as part of his company's strategy to reduce its workforce by more than 25,000 employees. After lots of hand wringing and debate, he decided to take the package for a number of reasons. A key consideration was the fact that he had no guarantee he wouldn't eventually be the victim of another strategy being used by the company to reduce headcount: three rounds of layoffs this summer, with more possible in the future. 

My husband dutifully filled out the required paperwork. Though he knew the company reserved the right to keep key employees on the job for up to a year, he planned to leave his job at the end of this August. Then he learned that he was viewed as a key employee, and that the effective date for his retirement wouldn't be for another year. Same package, just a year later.

My husband's first comment when he discovered the company wanted him to stay: "Gee, it only took 30 years for them to tell me I'm indispensable."

I'm sharing this information as background for something that happened more recently, again to my husband. 

He was making a presentation at a meeting for executives from the corporate offices, reviewing plans for the next year. During his presentation to 30-plus people, my husband had to explain that he'd be gone by the time certain planned events were scheduled to occur. In other words, he wouldn't be around to see something through. 

As he recounted to me over dinner, the most senior executive from the corporate office immediately stopped the meeting, and said, "On behalf of the company, I'd really like to thank you for your 30 years of service." The executive continued, announcing how grateful he was for the skills and experience my husband brought to his job and the contributions he made to the company, as well as those of others in the room who had also taken the early-retirement incentive. He noted that all had helped make the company great. 

My husband was stunned when it happened. And pleased -- so much so that he came home and talked about it over dinner, touched by the fact that he thought the executive actually meant it. 

This experience served as a personal reminder as to how powerful -- and affordable -- a simple "thank you" can be in the workplace. 

We all grew up being taught to have good manners and say "please" and "thank you." And every Management 101 class emphasizes the importance of employee recognition. Nevertheless, I think we're all guilty of failing to leverage the power of "thank you" the way that we could and should. 

Maybe it's because we're facing deadlines, feeling unappreciated because no one has said "thank you" to us, or because we stubbornly think that we shouldn't have to say "thank you" to someone who's paid to do their job. Or maybe we just forget. Whatever the reason, we don't say it as often as we should. 

Indeed, I'm pretty sure that most HR leaders know of or have had to coach an executive who failed to recognize and thank employees. 

For those HR and non-HR executives who question the importance of expressing gratitude, (i.e. "Does it really matter?") consider a paper published in 2010 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association. 

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The paper shares the results of a number of experiments with students who were asked to help other students by reviewing resumes. Researchers found that a mere expression of thanks for their help more than doubled the likelihood that the students providing help would provide help again. 

In another experiment, when a manager took time to say "thanks" to students for their fund raising efforts, the simple expression of gratitude resulted in an increase of more than 50 percent in the number of calls that the average fundraiser made in a single week.

In yet another experiment, just saying "thank you" once resulted in a 15-percent increase in the average amount of time a student would spend helping another student. 

In other words, when you say "thank you," employees are likely to be more helpful to others and to work harder. That sounds a lot like increased employee engagement to me.

So consider your own experiment. Launch a thank-you campaign a month or so before your next employee-engagement survey. Remind managers how important it is for them to let employees know that their time and efforts are appreciated by the company. See what happens to your next engagement scores.

But better yet, why wait? Start the campaign now!

Thanks for your time.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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