Thanking People You Lead Makes Them More Helpful

December 12, 2011

The ability to say “thank you” to people that perform well or otherwise advance the shared purpose of the organization is a character strength that I believe we should require from those that we grant the privilege to lead. Expressing gratitude for the contribution of others is a type of reward power that can make us more influential with others.

The evidence on the power of gratitude in the workplace is meager; however, a very well done study published in 2010 helps us better understand why a little thanks goes a long way. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino proposed that when we express gratitude, people are more motivated to be helpful because it increases their feelings of self-efficacy (capability and competence) and social worth (appreciated for making a difference).

Through a series of four separate experiments (see below for full citation) they found that when people received expressions of gratitude for their work, it increased both the frequency and duration of behaviors intended to help the organization. When people were thanked for their efforts, it enhanced both their feelings of self-efficacy and feelings of social worth, but only social worth was a significant predictor of helping behavior. According to the authors “when helpers are thanked for their efforts, the resulting sense of being socially valued, more than the feelings of competence they experience, are critical in encouraging them to provide more help in the future” (p. 953).

If all your people ever do is only what is in their formal job descriptions, your organization will be mediocre at best. For your organization to excel, your folks need to be good citizens and do more than what’s simply required to help the organization and their co-workers. Leaders that express gratitude to their employees make them feel valued, and this evidence shows that when employees feel valued they behave in ways that the organization values.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Full citation: Grant, A.G. & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (6): 946-955.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Henry Motyka says:

    This is a great post. I ran a group for 15 years using this principle. People respond; the become more mature in their roles; they care more. All this happens when the leader says thank you and great job.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Henry. Thanks for sharing from your experience and validating these findings. Bret

  2. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    Empirical evidence aside, I think any one of us instinctively knows that we ourselves respond better when we are thanked than when we are left unthanked.

    This holds true whether the effort is small, like holding the elevator for a colleague, or big, like pulling off a new company-wide project within budget and on time.

    At minimum, the expression of thanks is a signal that:
    – our effort was noticed
    – our effort was perceived as having a beneficial impact;
    – our effort was perceived as springing from our own human initiative — or in other words, the “thanker” acknowledges that we had a choice to do it or not, and we decided to do it.

    Regarding the latter, I think things start to get cloudy when we buy into the reasoning that if something is in someone’s job description, it should not be thanks-worthy.

    I had a discussion about this exact thing once with my friend at work. We both develop training sessions. She balked at my inclusion of a slide at the end of a classroom training that said, “Thanks for coming today!” She rightfully pointed out that this was a required course, so the participants pretty much had to attend, so we shouldn’t be thanking them for doing so. I conceded her point, but kept the slide in… because I wanted to acknowledge the fact that for this course, they had to show up outside of work hours, during time that would otherwise be their own, and even though they would be compensated in their paycheck, at the training rate we were paying the course was not exactly a gold mine.

    Over the years I have kept to a pattern of thanking people even for those things that others consider usual or expected behavior. And I want to say that in my circle of corporate co-workers, I may not be the one who wins the biggest accolades — but I definitely am the one who gets the swiftest Help Desk response. Hmm. If I had to choose, I’d take the latter, wouldn’t you?

    So let’s all un-Scrooge ourselves from the niggling urge to treat people as if they owed us. The truth is, sometimes they may — but by thanking them, we will not risk an insurrection — only maximize the interaction.

    THANKS for the great post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Beth! I hope you have been well and I THANK you for sharing your thoughts once again on my blog. As you point out, we should never take for granted the power of expressing gratitude. Thanks! Bret

  3. Al Smith says:

    Excellent post Bret. the thank you means so much especially coming from the boss. The CARE Movement is all about improving morale in the workplace. The CARE acronym is; Communicate, Appreciate, Respect, Encourage. All employees, CEO’s and all bosses need to work on these 4 things to create a better work environment. Thanks again.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Al! Love your CARE acronym. Thanks for sharing! Bret