One of the most effective, yet criminally underutilized, tools of a Leader

It is perhaps the most powerful tool in a Leader’s arsenal. It is highly effective, quick, easy and seemingly obvious. And yet shockingly often it is overlooked and underutilised.

Companies spend huge sums of money on motivating their employees, raising productivity and preventing staff rotation. They introduce intricate incentive schemes, and entire departments looking at wellbeing, talent management, training and career planning of their staff. All those things are very important.

But at the same time often the most fundamental and basic elements of motivating people right where they work, in the trenches, are not fully utilised due to the lack of imagination, compassion and skills of the direct managers.

Which brings us to the subject of this article. The little tool that makes people feel appreciated, noticed and gives them a positive nod to strive for more.

The tool that our parents taught us since we were little. A simple two words that are expected from a cultural and well behaved person on many occasions.

A simple yet powerful ‘Thank you!’ And maybe also: ‘You’ve done a great job’. Perhaps accompanied with a pat on the back or even a handshake.

It costs you nothing, isn’t limited in supply, and you don’t need anyone’s authorization to use it.

Leaders who are good at using it achieve more with less

Leaders who don’t underperform, and often struggle to understand why.

Why isn’t it used more often? Are Leaders afraid that overusing it will cause it to lose its power, or be taken for granted? But why keep it for a better occasion if they don’t plan on using it at all?

Of course it should only be used when it is truly deserved. But the problem is that exactly in those situations, when your teams have gone beyond and above, it often is not. And the demotivating consequences of that can be severe.

Let me give you a real-life example.

Years ago I’d been working with an amazing team of software engineers, in a company that was considered a true leader in their industry, and a gold standard in culture and talent incentivisation.

I was appointed as a new Engineering Manager of the most talented and critically acclaimed team of Software Engineers responsible for the largest and most strategically important, and complex, project in the company’s history.

The team has just finished a multi-month crunch where they were fighting like lions to enable the business to win a massive multi-year and multi-billion pounds contract. They have truly done an amazing job at a huge personal cost. They’ve been working weekends and long hours, and managed to pull it off.

One of the engineers was a technical leader of this effort.

He’d worked harder, and had done more to make the successful outcome happen, than anyone else.

And yet when the success was announced the company leaders privately and publicly praised their own effort and thanked themselves. Our unsung hero had been neglected and went unnoticed by the higher rungs. He remained that – an unsung hero.

The cost to the company in the months that followed was huge. Not only had he quietly quitted, and stopped being as productive as he’d been before, he also became quite negative and spread some sort of bad vibes across the team. The overall productivity had visibly dropped.

After a few months he decided to move on and found a different job, in an industry that had more capital and was generally paying better (well-above-average) salaries.

When he moved, a number of his colleagues followed. This was a disaster for our company, as those guys had very unique skills and it was extremely difficult to recruit the right candidates to this team.

For months I’ve been trying to rekindle his passion for our company, and to win his heart back. I managed to get him promoted, and rewarded with a bonus.

But this all was too little, too late. At the exit interview he told me that the lack of appreciation for his herculean effort was a turning point when he realised that the Leadership of the company didn’t really care about their people. That they cared only about themselves. And that all their beautiful values and motivating speeches were – in his eyes – hypocritical. It was at that point that he decided to look for a new job, and nothing could have changed it from that moment on.

To think that all that could have prevented that was a simple ‘thank you’!

I hope that demonstrates to you as a leader the importance of this simple yet powerful tool.

So how to use it to make it really effective?

If we want to use a ‘thank you’ as a positive reinforcement, in our process of building a highly performing culture and cultivating the right behaviours, it should be immediate. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, but noticing that someone has done something good right then and there gives a powerful incentive to keep repeating the beneficial action.

If someone has done something truly outstanding or even heroic a recognition from different levels of Leadership, and maybe even in a public setting, can be adequate. But even if it is not public and does not invoice formal rewards, a simple fact that a CEO, senior leader, or – and definitely – a line manager noticed and appreciated the effort can go a long way.

So yes, as part of building a high-performing culture in our organisations, we should make sure that a frequent appreciation and a healthy dose of using the magical ‘thank you’ to employees who really strived to do their best – as part of our leadership culture – is a must.

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Rafal Bergman
Rafal Bergman
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