The Folly of Thank You

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I was dazed by a recent Forbes article that said leaders can improve employee engagement by frequently saying “thank you” to their staff. It’s no wonder we have such an issue with employee engagement, where 72% of American workers alone
are disengaged. We need to pay closer attention to what resonates with our personnel.

The article reminded me of a Vice President who I used to work alongside. We both led parts of an organization that provided Information Technology services to a broader company and to its customers. He routinely said thank you to his employees at every opportunity. We attended lots of meetings together, where we would speak with employees about the status and accomplishments of projects. Without fail, he would never leave a meeting without saying “thank you” to each employee. I got a sinking feeling every time he said it.

“Thank you” is something you say to someone who does something for you. As a leader, it’s fine to say it to an employee who erases a virus from your laptop. But when an employee does something for a customer or another group of employees, they didn’t do it for you, and it’s egotistical for you to act as though they did. Also, habitually thanking everyone can’t be done with heartfelt emotion, so you come across as disingenuous.

You may contend that since you’re the boss, your employees are in essence doing what they do for you. However, if you read almost any research on how modern-day employees think, you understand they have little reverence for the boss. What they get excited about is helping to achieve a broader purpose, not pleasing the boss. When I appreciate an employee, instead of thanking them as though they did it for me, I point out how they’ve helped customers or the broader organization, and I express my appreciation on behalf of them. This increases the employee’s engagement and helps keep their focus on achieving the big purpose rather than on just trying to make me happy.

Employees also get excited about receiving praise and compliments when they’ve done something really well. Mastering their skills and feeling highly competent is important to them. However, compliments and praise only count if they’re genuine and if they’re articulated by someone who is clearly worthy of judging their competence. They mean the most coming from someone who understands the difficulty of their accomplishments, which is often a peer or customer. Again, a routine “thank you” by the boss just doesn’t cut it.

All business leaders want employees to feel engaged, to have a strong desire for the business to be successful. Because engagement is an emotion, it’s important to understand what is emotionally meaningful to employees. They get passionate
when they are profoundly involved in achieving something that personally matters to them. Your acknowledgement of their work can help ignite the passion, but only when it goes beyond the routine and connects them to what really matters.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Barb Babij  May 7, 2012

    While I agree that saying thank you, routinely, and without tying it to a meaningful contribution will often evoke that “sinking feeling”, taking an employee’s efforts for granted can also have a negative impact on engagement. In a diverse workforce, leaders need to be mindful of the group with which they are working, and adjust their strategies accordingly.

  2. Kathryn Douglass  May 8, 2012

    Jackie, I agree with your comments. I have known many managers ( notice I didn’t say “leaders” ) who were masters of insincere appreciation and insincere apology. Assuming that employees can’t see thru the insincerity is a mistake, and only serves to make the sender of the message feel superior, and devalue real accomplishments.

  3. Donna Ginn  May 8, 2012

    Could not agree more.

  4. Wayne Hall  May 8, 2012

    I like the work by Dan Pink.

    I hit a couple of employee sites commenting on their employeer and by far the number one complaint was leadership does not listen.

    I strongly feel, that if you show me a disengaged employee you will find a disengaged manager. In our culture we have this strong myth that leaders have the answers and just by moving up we are now smarter and other are dumber. Ok, maybe its not said that way.

    I call it the sleeping foot. Feedback does not happen, insteed correct answer are sent (what the leader wants to hear) and the foot no longer follows the brain. Movement become hard. And what happens when we start establishing honest communications with our sleeping foot. Well its painful at first and we want the pain to go away. This is when companies cut off their foot. But if we work through this pain we can dance again.

  5. Mark  May 11, 2012

    A gratuitous “thank you” said as an arbitrary noise pattern is of about the same usefulness is the obligatory, “how are you doing?” when the asker cares little for how you are actually doing. However, as part of a leader’s total practice of Appreciative Management and Positive Leadership, “thank you for…” and “I appreciate that you….” goes an awful long way.

    Sadly, the message that many poor leaders and managers will take away is that there now exists a magical incantation that will turn their employees from demotivated and disengaged to productive and efficient worker-bees. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The person who needs to be magically transformed is the leader her/himself.

    • Jody Bareket  June 4, 2012

      I agree with Mark. We need to look holistically at what is being done and not discount any one thing or another. In addition, the “how” we do it is critical. Saying “thank you” in a genuine and appropriate way IS important (just ask someone who works hard and never hears it) – is it the ONLY important thing? Of course not – should it be over used and insincere – of course not.
      Proportion is a good thing.

  6. Glen Fahs  May 15, 2012

    While the author’s analysis makes sense that you can over-do a good thing, some other problems with saying “thank you” is that it is courtesy, not recognition. I have seven adjectives that describe effective recognition: Sincere, Specific, Soon or Spontaneous, Short, Sweet (no even implied negatives), Sensitive (what one person appreciates another wouldn’t), and Special (varying the approach to include a note, a symbolic gift, praise at a staff meeting, a visit from someone the person admires, etc.). Thank yous might not meet these criteria.

  7. Tammy Ray  May 16, 2012

    Excellent article! Let’s hope the managers as Kathryn noted above read this! Well done Jackie! Can we share this w/other leaders?

  8. charley matera  May 20, 2012

    To me, while the article raises interesting issues, I think it is not yet touching the fundamental issue here. Frequency, sincerity, source, appropriate object of thanks, etc miss the mark. My opinion is that the reason “Thank you” too often rings hollow is because saying it can’t help be otherwise. I look to Fred Herzberg’s motivation theory of hygiene factors and satisficers. In this contemporary work world (Western culture anyway), “Thank you” is only a hygiene factor to most employees. That is: it is expected AND it is not a motivator but it’s absence is a demotivator (resulting in same or less engagement). Therefore, managers who expect employees to show gratitude and engagement and loyalty as a result of being told “Thank you” are waiting for attitudes and motivations that will never happen.

    For there to be motivation and engagement, “rewards” must be satisficers, not hygiene factors. To understand what rewards generate motivation and engagement, you have to ask! Thats risky of course because managers fear they cannot deliver what is asked for. The question is: Why not?

    Daniel Pink is on the right track here but his argument, I believe only extends to a small percentage of employees who are in jobs where career paths truly can lead to challenging work, creating new things and being recognized and promoted. Think about the many industries (retail, fast food, manufacturing-such-as-it-still-exists), piecework cottage industries) where this is not likely. Think of the number of migrant workers or illegals working invisibly or part-time workers or “temps” or contractors for whom this is not possible.

    Motivation and engagement are closely related to loyalty and loyalty was lost by corporations in the 80’s-90’s decades of large layoffs. Loyalty tranferred to peer professionals and family. Probably for good. To build engagement (different from loyalty) company owners and executives need to address motivation through regular commmunication of each manager to each of his/her employees. Forget about loyalty, not likely to change. But engagement is still up for grabs. And in my opinion, semi-automated performance review is a clear example of the wrong directon to go if one wants to build engagement.

    As my marketing friend used to say when asked how many market segments were out there, he replied, “One of each.” Same with employees: they are segments of one each as well, even if 10 of them are all doing the same accounting or CSR or product design or product production job, each has his/her own set of motivators that are the reasons why they come to work every Monday morning. And that set of reasons, for each one of them is what a manager needs to know so that they dont fall into the trap of thinking a hygiene factor (“thank you”) is a satisficer and can begin to build engagement.

    Charley Matera
    HiComm Consulting
    “…using Conversation by Design(tm) to get Real Results…”

  9. John Gelmini  May 29, 2012

    Whoever wrote the Forbes article did not understand human nature and has not read either Sun Tzu or Machiavelli who both commented on the need for a strict system of rewards and punishments and the need to ration one,s largesse and thanks to ensure that there is enough to go round and to ensure that the process is not devalued by virtue of it happening too often and becoming the norm.

  10. Andy Heath  June 3, 2012

    After the first couple of times they hear thank you I would have thought it would start to become de-motivating very quickly…

    In truth, you can’t just make a workforce ‘engage’ and then sit back and wait for them to give you more. It’s a two-way street – if you want your people to offer a commitment above and beyond their contract you are going to have to do something for them in return. This doesn’t necessarily involve money – you have to do something far, far more important than that.

    Got some pointers as to what a real engagement strategy would need to achieve;

    would be interested to hear any views as this topic is misunderstood by the majority of people… including the author on Forbes!!


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