In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wanted to explore how crucial it is for leaders to be skilled at expressing their thanks.

Starting as early as preschool and Sunday school, then continuing in every most every course and professional development opportunity since, you’ve likely been challenged to lead in a way that honors the Golden Rule. Put simply, the rule calls upon each of us to treat others as we wish to be treated. In so many ways, this philosophy really is the gold standard of human interaction.

However, when it comes to expressing our thanks, the rule may have an inherent weakness. In essence, this rule makes the key assumption that each of us prefers to be treated in the same way. Perhaps a slightly modified iteration, to treat other people the way they want to be treated, would better serve our purpose.

One of my former bosses loved public recognition. She enjoyed standing in front of the entire organization and celebrating the major accomplishments of her team. It was always a moment of high energy and helped establish a positive culture. When it was my turn to be recognized, however, all I wanted to do was climb under the nearest table and wait for the moment to be over. My bosses’ intentions were sincere. She was recognizing others exactly as she preferred to be recognized and it was a wonderful gesture. The impact of the moment would have been magnified, however, if she had shared a conversation with me beforehand and understood the way I would have preferred to be acknowledged.

As we lead, it’s important that we get to know our team members on a personal level. We need to understand their interests and motivations. We need to be clear on their professional aspirations and align this role with those plans. And we need to know how they prefer to be liked and celebrated.

The easiest way to find out how a teammate likes to be thanked is to ask. There is such a wide-ranging menu of options to help express our appreciation. Some of my favorites include:

Quick and Dirty Thanks — A quick and dirty thanks is the bare minimum required to show gratitude. A quick text message or email that acknowledges a specific contribution someone made to help the team move forward.

Tried and True Thanks — A handwritten thank you card is still one of the easiest ways to make sure your thank you has a personal touch. In today’s age, when so much communication has gone digital, a voicemail can often accomplish this same goal.

Token Thanks — Providing a token of thanks requires additional work on the front end, to be sure that you’re offering a token that will resonate with the recipient. For some contributions, organization-branded swag (like post-it notes or a T-shirt) can strike the right chord. In other cases, more meaningful gifts (like tickets to a sporting event or show) may be required to send the intended message.

Public Thanks — Many people love public thanks. Recognizing someone publicly can be done at a staff meeting or a company-wide event, in a newsletter or by a widely distributed e-mail, or by giving an award that is known to be connected with positive contributions. Public thanks can also be offered through social media posts or website spots highlighting key contributors.

Influence Thanks — One additional option to demonstrate thanks is to invite the individual to influence future directions of the team. By telling someone that his or her efforts on this project have resulted in an opportunity for them to shape an upcoming decision or play a larger role in an upcoming project can reinforce their positive work and show that the organization recognizes their individual contributions by committing to a deeper investment in them moving forward.

Regardless of how you elect to show your thanks, make sure the message is timely, personalized, and specific. Pay attention to what is happening around you, and when you see someone doing something extraordinary, acknowledge it. Recognize the contribution in a way that is personal. Generic thank you messages carry little value. Efforts demonstrating the leader went out of her or his way to show appreciation matter. Finally, choose a message which strays away from “thanks for being a valuable member of our team” to one that says, “your efforts to decorate the lobby for the upcoming holidays helped the entire facility feel more festive.” In combination, this trifecta – timeliness, personalization, and specificity – will help ensure your thank you messages achieve their goal.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving, be sure to take a moment to look around at those who are celebrating alongside you. And as the mood strikes you, pull them aside and thank them for being a positive presence in your life.

Dave Urso is dean of Academic Affairs at Blue Ridge Community College and chief innovation officer at Dynamic Consulting.

(2) comments


What an insightful look at something we may take for granted as one size fits all. We can all put Dave's "Tweaking the Thanks" template to work this coming week and throughout the year. Thanks for the Thanks advice.


Great advice indeed!

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