Giving Thanks at Work: An HBR Guide

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The research is clear: gratitude is good for you, for the person you’re saying thanks to, and for your team. But how should you express gratitude at work? How can you thank your colleagues in a meaningful way? In this piece, author Amy Gallo surfaces some of the best advice on giving thanks from the HBR archives. 

We all want to work in a place where people are polite, considerate, and kind, and expressing appreciation to your colleagues is an important part of building that sort of culture. But how do you do it right? What’s the best way to express your gratitude? And what exactly are the benefits of giving thanks at work?

Fortunately, this is a topic that HBR has covered quite a bit. Over the years, we’ve published dozens of articles on the research behind and the importance of appreciating and recognizing others, especially those who work on your team. So I dug into our archive to surface some of our best advice.

Why You Should Express Gratitude

The research is clear: Gratitude is good for you. It improves wellbeing, reduces stress, and builds resilience. It can even make you more patient (something we could all use more of these days!).

There are upsides for those around us too, because we are better colleagues as a result. Studies have shown “that when people feel grateful, they’re willing to devote more effort to help others, to be loyal even at a cost to themselves, and to split profits equally with partners rather than take more money for themselves,” wrote professor David DeSteno, who studies the ways in which emotions guide our decisions and behaviors.

Telling your colleague that you feel grateful for them also increases their willingness to help, likely because they feel valued. Francesca Gino and Adam Grant did a series of studies on this, including one where participants who had edited a student’s cover letter received either a neutral message from the student acknowledging they’d received their feedback or a grateful note, expressing thanks and appreciation. When the students asked the participants for help again, those who were thanked were twice as likely to say yes than those who hadn’t been thanked. Put another way: When someone wasn’t thanked, the chances of them helping again in the future were cut in half.

Simply feeling gratitude can have also a positive impact on the culture you work in. In one of my favorite findings about gratitude, it was shown to reduce workplace mistreatment. In that study, participants were asked to keep a journal of their workday for two weeks, and they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: One was encouraged to write down the things —people, projects — that they were grateful for, and the other was instructed to just chronicle their days. Those in the former group “reported greater self-control and, according to their coworkers, subsequently engaged in less rudeness, gossip, and ostracism at work.”

Given that when people are stressed out, they’re more likely to treat those around them poorly, this is an especially important time to not only feel grateful but to express it. The last few years of turmoil and uncertainty have left many of us feeling burned out, overworked, and confused about how much what we do matters.

The time is right to show your colleagues you appreciate them, but how?

How to Express Your Gratitude

What you say — and how you say it — matters. A simple “thanks” is a start, but given how many of us sign off every email with that word, its impact has probably waned. Instead, you want to be specific about what you’re grateful for, explain why it was meaningful to you, and point out what exactly you appreciate about the other person.

When should you express your gratitude for someone? The short answer is: now. You want to say thank you as soon as possible after the action that prompted the positive impact, but it’s never too late. (The only caution is to avoid doing it so often that the words become expected, bland, and meaningless.)

Of course, you can send a Slack message, an email, or a text. I personally appreciate these forms because I have a folder in my email where I keep compliments or thank you notes (and go through them when I’m having a bad day). But you might want to consider a handwritten note, which shows that you put in extra effort to share what was on your mind. And you can also hop on the phone or a video call to say thanks, though that does put pressure on the recipient to react to your gratitude right away.

Regardless of the medium you settle on, spend a few moments thinking about what you’re grateful for and how their actions affected you. This will allow you to be specific.

Christopher Littlefield, an expert in employee appreciation, gives a few ways to open your message:

I was reflecting on our last project over the weekend, and I realized I never said thank you. 

We have been so busy lately that I realized I haven’t taken the time to express my appreciation for all your great work.

You might even try: Over the holiday, I was thinking about the people who’ve made this year better for me, and you came to mind.

Littlefield also shares an example of talking about what you appreciate:

I know it took courage for you to give me honest feedback after my last presentation. I want you to know I really appreciate your doing that.

And why you appreciate it:

I always ask for feedback, but people rarely say anything more than, “You did great.” Your feedback helped me rethink my presentation and gave me concrete things to work on. That’s exactly what I needed to improve.

Don’t stop there though. Social psychologist Heidi Grant says that we have a tendency, in these moments, to talk about ourselves when we should be thinking about the other person. So don’t just explain how you benefited from their actions: “It let me relax…” or “It makes me happy….” Praise them as well. Include sentiments that start with “You go out of your way…” or “You’re really good at…” or “It shows how responsible you are…” so that they can see themselves positively and feel understood and appreciated.

If you’re a manager, you not only want to express your gratitude to your direct reports but to encourage others to do so as well. Be a role model. For example, take time to give each of your team members a sincere and personalized thank you for their effort this year. Or create time and space (physical or virtual) for gratitude. Some employees may feel uncomfortable expressing appreciation verbally, so you might start an appreciation wall or a dedicated Slack channel for employees to recognize each other. You could also begin meetings with gratitude “check-ins,” during which team members can express one thing that they’re thankful for.

At HBR, we have an annual “Pie Day” the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. and we’re given the opportunity (and the stationery) to write a thank-you note to a colleague. I see many of these notes from previous years posted at my colleagues’ desks.

There’s no better time to introduce these practices than the holiday season, as we’re all reflecting on what’s been a trying year. So go ahead and start now.

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