You have the power to increase your workers’ productivity, sense of well-being, and desire to contribute to your company with two simple words—thank you.

Expressing gratitude isn’t as simple as stopping by an employee’s desk with a brief, well-meaning message of appreciation. How, when, and why you thank your team matters. According to new research, some managers get workplace gratitude wrong, meaning it has net-negative effects.

To learn more best practices for giving praise in the workplace, we sat down to chat with Crystalee Beck, the researcher behind “Perceptions of Thanks in the Workplace,” an internationally recognized study on the ways employees perceive managerial expressions of gratitude.

Beck’s research includes a survey of 883 full-time employees and three focus groups. She seeks to answer how leaders can most effectively express appreciation—and why they might be missing the mark. We asked Beck to help us brainstorm some solutions for better thank yous. But first, let’s establish why gratitude is essential to a well-functioning workplace.

 

Why “thanks” Matters at Work

 

Gratitude has an overwhelmingly positive effect on employee well-being. Findings in Psychology show gratitude within organizations is the most accurate predictor of job satisfaction. And a study in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that expressions of gratitude can increase employee commitment, literally cutting absentee days in half.

A review of studies also published in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that employees who perceive support from their organizations are more satisfied, optimistic, and happy on the job. The review also found that when employees receive gratitude, their motivation and sense of value within the organization increase, in turn increasing employees’ willingness cooperate with other employees.

Lack of appreciation is at the root of many companies’ struggle to retain their best talent. In fact, a staggering 64 percent of recently departed workers said simple gratitude was the main reason they quit their jobs. “Most people don’t leave their job,” Beck told us. “They leave their manager.”

“A big part of a positive employer-employee relationship is feeling recognized for your effort,” Beck said. “Leaders who get it right reward their organization with happier employees. Those who get it wrong lose good people.”

What’s more, gratitude in the workplace doesn’t just improve morale. “I’ve learned gratitude in the workplace has a real financial impact on organizations,” said Beck. Employees who feel appreciated are more engaged—and organizations with highly engaged employees are 21% more profitable, according to a Gallup survey.

 

The how of giving thanks effectively

 

There’s more to effective gratitude than peppy affirmations or quickly jotted notes of thanks. To understand how employees preferred to receive thanks, Beck looked at six mediums of workplace gratitude:

  1. One-on-one verbal praise
  2. Verbal praise in a group
  3. Online (email or intranet) messages
  4. Handwritten notes
  5. Monetary bonuses, and
  6. Tangible bonuses like gift cards or food

Out of these six expressions of gratitude, one-on-one verbal praise was the most given (by 41 percent of managers) and also the most desired. Twenty-eight percent of employees preferred private verbal expressions of appreciation, indicating the value of a simple thank you—even over a monetary bonus.

However, Beck cautions the majority preference is not the rule: “Keep in mind, every employee is unique. This is not a one-size-fits-all answer.” For example, millennials do tend to prefer monetary rewards over verbal thanks. Also, a shy employee might be terrified of public praise, while another may thrive on it.

To help employees feel the impact of your appreciation, here are three smart ways managers can use technology to appreciate their workforce better:

 

1. Use survey and data software to gauge and track employee preferences

 

“In order to really do gratitude right, you have to know who your audience is,” Beck reminded us. “Every employee has different comfort levels and preferences. Giving thanks most effectively comes down to the individual.”

Both off-the-shelf and custom-made survey software allow employers to periodically evaluate individual employee preferences for thanks.

Data technology—even something as simple as a spreadsheet—allows managers to track and store employee preferences and maintain data on who is receiving thanks and how often thanks is given.

 

2. Implement intranet software to message and recognize

 

Company-wide intranets bring employee gratitude into the modern age with a variety of tools employees love, while streamlining the process for managers.

Not only do intranets allow managers and employees to message each other, but intranet systems can also include employee recognition programs, which can go a long way toward making sure everyone feels appreciated. Reward apps and online tools allow managers to reward employees—and employees to reward each other.

Badges and points may seem like a small token of thanks, but for some employees, they supply major motivation—and a company-wide culture of appreciation.

 

3. Make gratitude part of the process with auto-reminders

 

An unsaid “thank you” is a wasted opportunity, so integrate it into your workflow. Busy people leaders can stop habits of bypassing gratitude by giving themselves electronic reminders.

Automated prompts after significant events or completed projects help managers remember to express appreciation to their team members—in a timely and regular manner. After all, we are what we repeatedly do.

(A brief note: Both custom software and pre-packaged solutions allow employers to be better at giving thanks, but leaders need not resort to one or the other. Coming soon on the blog, RevUnit CGO Seth Waite will discuss why a combination of off-the-shelf and custom-built technology is typically the best option.)

 

The dos and don’ts of giving thanks at work

 

“It seems counterintuitive that something as ‘nice’ as appreciation can be done wrong,” notes Beck, “but some types of gratitude communications can do more harm than good.”

She found seven common problems reported by employees, which she dubbed the “dark sides of managerial gratitude,” because they cause more problems than positive effects. They are: over-communication, withholding, unfair selection, undeserved gratitude, unequal opportunity, lack of relationship, and insincerity.

 

To get gratitude right, here are simple dos and don’ts for managers:

 

  • DO be specific. According to Beck’s focus group participants, “Being specific is nearly synonymous with being sincere.” Make sure expressions of gratitude note what the worker did right and why it mattered.
  • DO be timely. “Expressing thanks needs to happen sooner rather than later,” says Beck. Express thanks immediately after employees make a positive contribution—not after weeks or months have passed.
  • DO match recognition to effort. An emoji thumbs up is not an adequate thanks for a difficult project completed on time. Make sure rewards are commensurate with employee effort.
  • DON’T over-communicate. One study participant said, “If you’re thanked all the time, then it’s a failure on the manager’s part; either they are lying or clueless.” Make sure thanks is sincere and thought out, not flippant and too frequent.
  • DON’T withhold gratitude. Saying “thank you” once doesn’t mean you never have to say it again—and failing to express thanks due to power struggles or petty squabbles is particularly demoralizing.
  • DON’T give undeserved or unfair praise. As one participant put it, “I want to be thanked when I really extend myself.” Pay attention to the efforts your employees are putting in instead of thanking mindlessly. And make sure you’re transparent about why certain employees receive rewards and praise.

 

Getting appreciation right in your workforce pays off with higher retention, more productivity, and happy people motivated to make your company successful.

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated,” wrote American philosopher William James. Show your employees you care and they matter by giving thanks—and doing it effectively.