14 ways to do a better job of thanking people

Written by: Vu Le
Published on: Jan 17, 2019

thank you david-maunsell

(Image: David Maunsell)

Gratitude has been scientifically proven to lead to all sorts of benefits, from reducing stress, to improving sleep, to making people around us less likely to poison our hummus.

What we’re not as good at is expressing gratitude to other people. Heck, one study found that 33 percent of workers have not been recognized in the past six months, and 21 percent have never ever been recognized ever, which is really sad.

So let’s start talking about stuff we can do year-round to cultivate a culture of gratitude at our organizations. Because simply being thankful is not enough; we need to be better at recognizing and appreciating the people who make this work successful. These tips are in no particular order. Special thanks to my colleagues Alice Ferris, Jim Anderson, and Lisa Ryan for many of these suggestions that I gathered from crashing their keynotes:

  1. Start a gratitude journal. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Once a week, just write down three specific things for which you are thankful. Here are a few tips based on research. (For instance, it seems it’s better to do the journal weekly rather than daily, and to focus on people rather than things.) This practice helps us better appreciate the people around us.

  2. Catch people doing things well. We pay far more attention to when people screw up than to when they do something right. Let’s be on the lookout for and acknowledge when people are doing things right, not just when they do something wrong. It makes a huge difference.

  3. Thank people who are steady and consistent. In addition to catching people doing things well, also acknowledge people who keep things running. Oftentimes, we pay attention to outliers and ignore consistent high-quality work. Operations staff, for example, are pivotal to everything in the sector, and the better they do their job, the less likely we’ll notice them. If you have been paid on time every month, or programs have been running without a hitch, or supplies are always available when you need them, or donations keep rolling in, or social media posts are always timely, or the fridge is always clean, find out who is doing their job so well, and thank them.

  4. Remember and celebrate special days. Have a calendar of everyone’s birthdays and work anniversaries, and find ways to celebrate these milestones. If you have a lot of team members, maybe have one day a month to celebrate everyone whose birthday is that month. But personal recognition for dates that are meaningful to your team members are usually appreciated. (However, as a colleague pointed out, please be considerate and ask people before you celebrate certain days, as it may be difficult for people; for instance, due to sometimes painful circumstances, some immigrants/refugees may not know their birthdays.)

  5. Find out how each of your colleagues likes to be thanked. Some people love public praise; others are mortified by it. Some people love gifts from you; others really appreciate getting to spend time with you, such as getting lunch together, etc. A questionnaire of preferences might be helpful. Here’s an example.

  6. Provide timely, frequent feedback, both positive and constructive. Research seems to indicate that top-performing teams have a 5.6-to-1 ratio of positive to constructive feedback. That means that, on average, you should aim to provide five or six pieces of praise for every suggestion for improvement. They don’t have to be delivered all at once, of course, but generally throughout your interactions. Most of us don’t get or give anywhere near that.

  7. Point out specific actions and results when thanking people. Avoid generic things like “Thanks for being so awesome!” It is way more meaningful to mention a specific action and what it means to you. For instance, “I really appreciate your time reviewing my draft grant proposal, especially the section on community needs. I know it took a lot of effort to remove all the cussing, especially since some of the swear words were in Olde English. Thank you.”

  8. Write out your sentiments. It is wonderful to hear words of gratitude in person, but written words can be especially appreciated, since the recipient can read them over and over again. Handwritten notes are great, but don’t let that stop you. It is often the heartfelt words that count, so while others may disagree with me, emails or typed letters are fine, sometimes preferred.

  9. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable or mushy once a while. It’s OK to let people know the profound effects they have had on you. We don’t do this enough for one another, probably because we think it may sound “cheesy,” or we think the other person might misinterpret our words or intentions. Don’t hold back: Life is too short to not let people know how they have bettered your life.

  10. Match your gratitude with actions. Sometimes, thanking people is not enough, or might actually be insulting, insensitive, or condescending. For instance, if a team member has been taking on an unfair amount of office chores that no one wants to do, such as cleaning the fridge, thanking them without taking other actions may justifiably only irritate them. Get everyone else to do their part, and maybe exempt the person from fridge duty for a while to balance things out.

  11. Pay people better, and provide health insurance and paid family leave. Speaking of actions, one of the best ways you can show your gratitude to your team is to make sure they are paid decently, have great insurance, and have sufficient paid family leave, among other things. A million thank-you notes or plaques do not make up for undercompensating people.

  12. Praise people to their bosses. It is important for supervisors to recognize and thank their team members, but even otherwise great ones can totally miss the mark on this. A message from you to someone’s supervisor or board of directors can serve as a timely reminder and make a huge difference in terms of morale for everyone.

  13. Thank job candidates who apply to your org. As I wrote earlier in “Hey, can we be nicer to job candidates and stop treating them like crap?” we expect job candidates to write us thank-you notes after interviews, and we sometimes punish them for failing to show sufficient gratitude. This needs to be mutual, because job applicants are also spending a lot of time on us.

  14. Appreciate yourself. Don’t forget to show gratitude to yourself. You are awesome, and you should acknowledge how amazing you are and all the great things you contribute to your nonprofit and to society.

Vu Le is a writer, speaker, and consultant, and the executive director of Seattle nonprofit Rainier Valley Corps. This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on his blog, Nonprofit AF.

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