I once worked for a manager who had a strange fear of saying thank you. He expressed concern that if he thanked people for doing great work, they would start to slack off. If he expressed thanks for doing the job people were paid to do, they would get the impression that doing their job was optional. While that may sound strange to you, if you look around at managers you have worked for in your career, you have probably seen similar behavior even if the words used to describe the behavior were different.
So, let's set the record straight. Saying thank you is one of the most powerful management tools there is. Period.
Break it down into three types of thank you's
If you have trouble saying thank you, especially to the people who work on your teams (your direct reports and your peers), try this really simple plan. Break thank you's down into three different types and plan to use each according to an easy schedule - Thank You 1 should happen multiple times per day; Thank You 2 should happen a few times per month; Thank You 3 may only happen a few times per year. Seriously, it's that easy. If you're really terrible at this, create a scorecard for yourself and keep a tally. You can't improve what you don't measure.
Thank You 1
The first type of thank you is the one you say almost automatically. Thank you for holding the door open, thank you for providing me this data, thank you for answering my questions. These are the ones that many beginning managers shy away from. They fear (incorrectly) that thanking people for doing what was asked of them or what is expected of them sends a message of weakness - as if responding to the ask was optional. Just the opposite. Thanking people for doing what is needed, expected, or asked is common courtesy. It is the basis of civility in the workplace and creates an atmosphere of cooperation rather than coercion. Human beings like to be acknowledged, so give it a try. You literally have nothing to lose.
Thank You 2
The next level of thank you is for work that is really good. Someone delivered a really well-written report. They did some analysis that was insightful or accurate or helpful. They got to the bottom of a persistent problem and solved it. Thank you in these cases needs to be timely and specific. In case that's still not clear, here are some examples. "Hey, Chris, great job on that report. The graphs you included really helped visualize the data in a way that made it easy to understand. Thanks." or "Hey, Martina, I was impressed by your analysis of the cost components for the upgrade. You covered all the aspects and tied it to outcomes really clearly. Good job. Thanks."
You can be specific without going overboard. They did not solve world hunger or invent the next big thing, but they did do a very good or great job on a specific task. They delivered a very solid piece of work. Let them know that. Keep it short and sweet, direct, specific and honest.
The Big Dog of Thank You's
Thank You 3
OK, so you've mastered Thank You's 1 and 2. Now onto the big one. Thank You 3 is when your team or members of your team knock it out of the park. Does it mean they have completely invented something new? No. Does it mean they followed a well-developed plan and delivered an expected result from a large task or project? Yes, that's a good example. When people deliver a solid result after a prolonged, coordinated effort; when they deliver excellence in the face of unexpected challenges; or when they manage to pull a project out of failure and deliver a winner, that's when a Thank You 3 is in order.
The question is, how do you do Thank You 3? Again, the key is honest, sincere thanks with some hoopla attached. Here are some ideas that might work in your environment:
1. Email to the organization (or department) calling out the accomplishment and the key contributors. [Note: avoid the tendency to want to thank everyone who ever heard about the project. Compile a list of people who truly made significant contributions.]
2. Email to your VP or executive team (as appropriate) calling out the accomplishments and the key contributors.
3. Certificates - easily create certificates that have the company and/or department logo, the accomplishment, date, your signature (and perhaps that of your manager or a key executive), the employee name and role on the project. You can also have fun with this by designating creative roles such as "Key Doughnut Delivery Scheduler" for your administrative assistant or "VIP Code Untangler" for a tester or QA analyst. If your teams have inside jokes (that are business appropriate) or creative titles already, including these can help reinforce team spirit.
4. Food - I've never known an IT department that didn't love pizza....however, providing pizza, bagels, donuts, salad, tacos- whatever is favored by your crew - lunch for the team or for the department with a short thank you at the start is often a great way to call out accomplishments.
5. Time Off - sometimes it's appropriate (if allowed by organizational policy) to reward key contributors with an extra day or two of PTO. This is not to be confused with providing time off because someone worked 200 hours in two weeks. Most organizations have guidelines about time off, but if you can reward people with a long weekend or a few extra days of PTO, it often goes a long way. And, there's a secondary upside to that - studies routinely show that people who take time off from work are more productive and generate better results when they are at work...time to recharge = better results, so the employee wins, you win, the organization wins - how's that for a 3x multiplier?]
6. Other - I'm sure you can come up with other creative ways for thanking your team for great results. Most cost almost nothing, take very little time and produce an environment in which people feel their work matters and their accomplishments are acknowledged. That's about as basic as you can get.
Learn to say Thank You regularly, sincerely, and specifically. It costs you next to nothing and it creates a bond of trust and appreciation that generates an exponential result. Give it a try.