It Isn’t Just a Myth: A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way!

By Robert I. Sutton, PhD

Wise bosses don’t just display empathy, compassion, and appreciation through dramatic and memorable gestures, as Dean Plummer did for me. They convey it through tiny and seemingly trivial gestures. As we’ve seen, effective bosses work their magic by piling up one small win after another–and realizing that followers are watching their every move. A host of renowned bosses talk about the importance of thanking people, about the power of this small gesture and how failure to express appreciation to people who are working their tails off is a sign of disrespect. The late Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis and author of Up the Organization, defined “Thanks” as “A really neglected form of compensation.” Max DePree, former CEO of furniture giant Herman Miller, described saying “thank you” as among a leader’s primary jobs.

I thought all this talk about something so small and so obvious was overblown until a professor from another school told me about a trip he took with his university president to China. The logistics of the trip were difficult, as it was a traveling road show where transportation, hotel accommodations, meetings, and hundreds of other little details, had to be orchestrated. The staff traveling with the group worked 12 to 16 hours day on these chores and did a magnificent job. Yet my colleague reported that, even though the president made many requests of the staff during the trip, he never once thanked them. This lack of gratitude was demoralizing, as they catered to his every whim but weren’t otherwise noticed or appreciated.

This perspective on the power of simple expressions of appreciation is bolstered by a series of four intertwined studies by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino in a paper called “A Little Thanks Goes A long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Pro-social Behavior.” These researchers found, in each study (all are randomized experiments with control and treatment conditions), that a simple expression of thanks by someone in authority led people to be more likely to volunteer to do extra work. Their research shows that this happens because the simple act of being thanked makes be feel more valued–and in some of these studies–it also increased peoples’ feelings of self-efficacy (essentially, the perception that they were making a bigger impact on the world around them).

I was especially interested in the study with university fund raisers. The simple act of having a boss come by and offer a public thanks to one group, and but not the other, really packed a wallop. These fundraisers were paid a fixed salary, so Grant and Gino compared the number of phone calls made by each fundraiser before and after the “thank you” intervention. The results were pretty impressive, as while there was no change in the average number of calls made by the group that was not offered thanks, the folks who heard a warm two sentence thank you from a boss made an average of about 50% more calls during the subsequent week.