For a couple of decades, I have written and spoken about the positive impact of thank-you notes.
I confess that my beliefs about the importance of writing thank-you notes has been based on anecdotal evidence, but now there’s research that supports what I believed intuitively.
Christian Jarrett, a British writer who focuses on psychology, summarized this research in an online article.
My thoughts about the power of thank-you notes have been influenced by the reaction of those who receive these messages. People have told me that receiving a handwritten thank-you note “made my day.” Some display these messages of gratitude in their workspace. Others file them away, to be pulled out and reread from time to time.
Knowing this, I recommend that the first time you recognize someone in writing you should also hand them a file folder, with the promise of more thank-you notes to come and the suggestion that they file them in the folder. “There will be times when you will want to reread these messages of gratitude.”
Because handwritten notes of appreciation are so rare—especially those that come through the mail—some recipients are not sure how to respond. One recipient emailed me to ask, “Should I send a note to thank someone for writing me a thank-you note?”
Psychologists Amit Kumar, from the University of Texas at Austin, and Nicholas Epley, from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that the impact of thank-you notes is greater than senders expected it would be.
The researchers asked participants in their study to write an email expressing appreciation to someone who had touched their lives in a meaningful way. These messages were to include two components, which just happen to correspond to two of the ingredients of meaningful (GREAT) staff recognition: Explicit: “expressing what the person had done” and Relevant: “how it had affected their lives.”
Jarret writes that, “the participants were asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Meanwhile, the researchers made contact with the recipients to find out how they actually felt and what they actually thought.”
The research demonstrated that two of the concerns that dissuade people from sending thank-you cards are invalid.
Specifically, some people don’t feel competent to write such cards and they underestimate the impact of what they write might have on recipients.
In fact, the research found that, “the senders of the thank-you letter consistency underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letter and how surprised they were by the content.” And, “the senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived [those writing the letters] to be.”
This finding seems to dismiss as a myth one of the common reasons managers and others give for not recognizing staff: fear that someone might “feel uncomfortable if they are singled out for recognition.”
A common stereotype about who hungers most for recognition—women and younger workers—is also inconsistent with what was discovered by Kumar and Epley.
“Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of the findings,” Jarrett writes.
With a research basis to support you doing so, now would be a good time to write a few thank-you notes and increase the impact your message of appreciation have by sending them to staff members’ homes.
You may make the same discovery as did a participant in a Thanks! GREAT Job! program, last fall, who emailed a few days later that, “I’ve started to hand out ‘thank you’ notes around the office. Such a simple and easy thing to do that people really appreciate!”