Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How Two Simple Words Can Energize Your Team and Grow Your Business

One of the lessons we were all taught by our parents was the importance of saying thank you to others. No matter how small or insignificant the interaction was, we were reminded that expressing gratitude to others was not only polite, but the right thing to do. Of course, as we got older, we also began to appreciate the impact we can create on others – and the impact others can have on us – because we take the time to share with them a word of thanks for their help or support.

While the value and benefit of saying thanks remains apparent and in use (most times) in social settings, there is still some doubt as to whether a similar value can be found in expressing gratitude in business interactions. In some cases, this is due to an organization’s culture or leadership, which may frown upon such gestures being brought into the workplace. For others, it might simply be a question of not having anything outside of anecdotal references that demonstrate the importance and value leaders would gain by expressing thanks to those they lead. In addressing this latter group, there may at last be some empirical evidence that explains how expressing words of gratitude can motivate and engage your team.

Dr. Adam Grant, from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Francesca Gino, from the University of North Carolina, conducted a series of experiments to determine why expressions of gratitude can increase “prosocial behaviour”, such as feeling empathy and performing actions for the benefit of others. The researchers hypothesized that expressions of gratitude can increase a person’s sense of self-efficacy and self-worth, thereby encouraging them to repeat or build on the behaviour that garnered them this gesture of appreciation.

In the first set of experiments, the researchers asked participants to help a student with their job application by editing their cover letter. After completing the task, the participants were sent a message from the student that was either neutral or which expressed gratitude for their help, along with a request for their assistance with another cover letter. As expected, the participants who received a message of thanks were more willing to help again than those who received no such expression of gratitude.

In the second experiment, the researchers wanted to evaluate whether expressions of gratitude would encourage prosocial behaviour to others and not simply to the person offering thanks. To evaluate this, the researchers modified the above experiment so that the participants received a request from another student for help with their cover letter. Once again, the number of participants who were willing to help this second student after receiving a message of gratitude was significantly higher than those who received a neutral response.

To determine whether these behaviours would translate into a real-life work setting, the researchers carried out a study that looked at how expressions of gratitude affected the motivation and drive of fundraisers working to raise alumni donations for a university. In these experiments, the fundraisers were paid a fixed amount, regardless of how many calls they made and they were given daily feedback about their effectiveness.

The researchers randomly divided the fundraisers into two groups that worked separate shifts, with one group getting a visit from a university director who thanked the fundraisers for their work. Mirroring the results of the previous two experiments, the fundraisers who received messages of gratitude from the university director made more phone calls to help the university than those who didn’t.

Upon completing these experiments, the researchers concluded that expressions of gratitude increase prosocial behaviour as a result of making people feel more ‘socially valued’ than as a result of increasing their sense of self-efficacy. These findings lead the researchers to state that “signaling to helpers that their efforts are valued, gratitude expressions maybe sufficiently potent to influence helpers’ efforts on behalf of the larger groups to which beneficiaries belong”, along with their suggestion that “gratitude expressions may have important theoretical and practical implications for encouraging prosocial behaviours that promote cooperation”.

Based on the findings of this study, how can leaders reap the benefits of expressing gratitude to others in terms of energizing their team and creating a more engaged workforce?  Well for starters, as this study demonstrated, it’s important that we recognize that saying thank you to others is not about offering personal validation as it is recognizing the value or benefit they provide through their efforts.

Of course, while this study confirms the common notion that people are more motivated when others take the time to thank them for their contributions, this doesn’t mean we can game the system by offering hollow gestures in the hopes of reaping the rewards. Instead, as in other aspects of our lives, this sense of engagement can only be sustained based on the sincerity of our appreciation. If nothing else, this study by Grant and Gino reinforces what our parents told us about saying thank you to others; that it is simply the right thing to do.

So the next time you notice your employees doing a good job, make time to stop by their desk and thank them for their efforts. It just might be the very thing they’re waiting to hear.

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4 Comments
  1. On September 24th, 2010 at 2:40 PM Gina said:

    This really says it all. It’s amazing how far those 2 little words can go when it comes to morale, motivation and engagement. They truly don’t get said enough in business let alone every day life. Think how different things would be if people just said it more!

  2. On September 24th, 2010 at 3:50 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It is amazing how such a simple gesture can make such a beneficial impact on people and organizations, which makes it all the more surprising why more leaders don’t employ it more often. Perhaps in light of having such empirical evidence – along with the reminder of what our parents taught us – there’ll be a more concerted effort to see this gesture put to greater use in business circles.

    It is, after all, the least we should expect from one another in our interactions. Thanks for your comment, Gina.

  3. On February 4th, 2011 at 12:11 PM Kirk said:

    Great common sense post…let us not forget the power of the word "Please" as well.

  4. On February 7th, 2011 at 3:05 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kirk; glad you enjoyed it. And I agree, "please" is another important word that should be a part of the business vernacular.

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