The Most Underutilized Tool in Making People Happier at Work

Every language has a word for “thanks.” It’s one of the few concepts that works in a hut in Bali, a London skyscraper or a mini-mart in Peoria.

In the U.S. (in November) and Canada (in October), we have actual paid-time-off days of “thanks.” And while many of us spend these Thanksgiving days expressing gratitude for our families, friends, health or prosperity, what about thanking the people who make your business possible: Your team.

By now there’s enough statistical evidence that recognition done right plays a critical role in engaging employees and creating high-performance cultures. Our research shows it also creates enhanced feelings of trust and communication in employees. But it’s hard to benefit from the impact of gratitude if you don’t do it.

No one knows this better than Kirt Walker, president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Financial in Columbus, Ohio. I was working with Kirt and his amazing leadership team at a meeting last week when he issued this challenge: “It's Thanksgiving. Lets make sure we thank our people.”

He then gave them a great way to accomplish the task: He asked them to consider writing a handwritten note to every direct report, expressing specifically what that employee has done to help the organization thrive. And he said it would be great to do it before Thanksgiving Day.

Kirt promised he was going to do it himself. I love it when leaders lead by example.

As Kirt knows, great service will only happen if we keep our employees engaged and focused. And a handwritten note costs almost nothing, but can be a very personal, very powerful way to convey gratitude. It is a warm conversation that is all about you, it doesn’t beep at you, distract you, or pull you away to do something else.

Letters and notes I’ve received have found their way into my journals and onto the walls around my desk. They are constant reminders of the people I work with who have become more than associates, they are now my friends. Probably my favorite note ever came from a colleague—Mike Goodson—who knew I was struggling. After telling me specifically how he thought I added value to the world, he summed up with a few lines I’ll never forget: “Chester, you aren’t just great. In the pantheon of greatness you are the greatest. You, my friend, are Spartacus.” I laughed, admittedly choked up a little, and his handwritten note is still hanging prominently on my wall years later.

Today, I send a lot of notes, not only to work associates but to family and friends too. Every Sunday I write a note to each of my two boys, Brinden and Garrett, who are away from home. I tell them how much I love and appreciate them, and I let them know they are never far from my thoughts. Once in a while I do get a letter back (because I gave them stationery for Christmas last year, and stamps!). One of my favorite notes has been from 21-year-old Brinden who told me when he gets my letters he doesn’t always open them right away, but often saves them for a day when things have been tough in his incomprehensible (to me) chemical engineering classes. As he said, “I know that after I read a letter from my dad, I will feel better about myself.” I love that kid!

Whether in our personal or public lives, specific and sincere notes can validate the ones we count on the most, those we care about. It takes so little time and the return far outweighs the effort.

So, wherever you live on this planet, why not use November as your month of thanks? Take a moment to look around you. Give thanks to your team members, your employees, your clients. Send a note of thanks to your leader for those paychecks that keep coming or the assignments and the trust he or she gives you. Send thanks to the network of professional relationships you’ve built in your industry. Giving “thanks” has never been more appropriate. And don’t forget friends and family too.

Don’t miss the opportunity to say thanks and your gratitude will spread like melted butter on warm yams. YUM!

A little thank you makes everything taste better.

Is anyone else getting hungry?

Chester Elton's latest book, written with co-author Adrian Gostick, is What Motivates Me, aimed at helping readers align the work they do every day, for the rest of their lives, with what truly motivates them. Elton and Gostick are also the New York Times bestselling authors of The Carrot Principle and All In.

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