Saying ‘Thank You!’ for ‘New’ Recognition Research

One would think after decades of research and information about the effect of positive reinforcement on behavior that business leaders, of all people, would have caught on by now. Yet, study after study shows that the workplace remains the least likely place to hear even a basic “thank you.” Our mamas taught us that it is important to have good manners and that saying thank you is the least we can do to show others that we appreciate the kindness or help extended to us. They were right, of course, and people do say thank you, but not so much in the workplace. Reporting on this lack of office gratitude in the Wall Street Journal late last year, writer Sue Shellenbarger cited the data: Only 10 percent of adults thank a co-worker every day; only 7 percent express appreciation to their boss.

Maybe one of the reasons that more companies don’t value positive reinforcement more as a way to motivate and improve organizational performance can be found in Forbes magazine, where a “comprehensive research project” reported that 87 percent of employee recognition programs focus on tenure and that such programs have zero impact on performance. Even so, companies in the U.S still spend more than $46 billion on employee recognition for such things as gold watches, pins and other baubles!

It is not that recognizing employee performance is a bad thing. It is quite the opposite. It pays when a company has a culture of appreciation. However, when I see a formal “employee recognition program” I am always suspicious that it is a substitute for good management, where appreciation is relegated to some system in which rules and budgets define it more than the fundamentals of conduct that our mothers taught us. Saying thank you is only a small part of what I would call an “appreciation culture,” but if that is not present you can bet that positive reinforcement as a way to drive performance is a stranger in that place. Although Shellenbarger’s data may shock many, the fact that it is presented as “new” would probably cause B.F. Skinner to turn over in his grave!

That said, I applaud anyone who continues to point out the value of practicing basic time-tested behavioral principles in the business community. However, by and large, business leaders aren’t listening. Amazingly, many bosses still believe that positive reinforcement is a sign of weakness or even gives employees an excuse to ask for a raise. They believe that fear is a motivator, and in part they’re right. Especially today with high unemployment rates, low growth and economic downturn, people are afraid — of losing their jobs — but that usually inspires duck-and-cover performance only. Shamefully, many organizations are taking advantage of these conditions. They’re rewarding their hard-working employees with bigger workloads, longer hours and the gift of keeping their jobs. Yes, a paycheck is rewarding, but it’s not enough, and what would a little expressed gratitude cost? Absolutely nothing, but it would bring dividends.

Employees may not be in a position of power right now, but they can start a culture of appreciation for one another. They can thank their co-workers, tell someone his or her help is appreciated, or they can even thank the boss — if he/she deserves it. All of these “new” studies simply verify the realities behaviorists have known for years. One of those realities (especially for business leaders) is that old habits die hard. But to quote Sherman Roberts of the Ivy Consortium, “The best way to treat people is also the best way to run a business.”

For tips on how to show appreciation, check out these posts: What Can We Do to Motivate Our Employees? or Praising the Boss.