Two unadorned words that pack a punch – thank you. This powerful message of appreciation is well on its way to becoming an “unappreciated” art form. Often we forget these very words as we race from one meeting to another, drown in emails and manage the demanding stress for results. The funny thing is that this act of kindness has the power to change results and further the outcomes that we are working so hard for.
The sincere thank you can bring a smile, capture a moment and make a difference. Yet, the “thank you” letter (or email) seems to get prioritized down our to-do lists, to the point where the next generation of leaders scarcely know that a handwritten note was once a standard of professionalism and good follow-up. Miss Manners would be horrified, as we careen toward the brink of a cultural extinction of gratitude.
Lest we forget, there are leaders that have made the thank you the “stuff of legends.” With lasting effect, they’ve built bridges, cemented loyalties and inspired others with by their written words.
Nelson Mandela embodied the grace upon which the letter of appreciation is best exemplified. For 27 years from his prison cell on Robben Island, he carefully mailed his allotted number of letters written with powerful words that could pass through the prying eyes of the censors. In his recently published in the book, Conversations with Myself, Mandela wrote to Sheena Duncan, a white, middle class woman from Johannesburg: “The ideals we cherish, our fondest dreams and fervent hopes may not be realized in our lifetime. But that is beside the point. The knowledge that in your day you did your duty, and lived up to the expectations of your fellow man is in itself a rewarding experience and a magnificent achievement.” Can you imagine the impact that the words of that letter had on Ms. Duncan in 1985, who was building a coalition of other Afrikaner women in support of black South Africans?
And, now with Mandela in serious decline, South Africans are thanking him back. One 16 year old girl, placing her thank you at a makeshift shrine at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, wrote, “Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to meet you, but even in the early stages of my life I decided that I wanted to be a caring, loving person just like you. PS. I am Afrikaans, sorry for any incorrect spelling.” The power of appreciation goes both ways.
President George H.W. Bush was also a prolific letter writer. He sent notes, cards and letters – short and long, serious or humorous – to honor friendships and encourage others, even to those on the other side of the political aisle. To President Clinton, who defeated him in the 1992 election, he writes following their joint Hurricane Katrina efforts, “Bill – This note is to simply let you know that I so appreciated your words about our relationship, about our friendship. It was from your heart. I hope you know I feel the same way.” How easy to jot down a few lines – and so to the point of creating an indelible impression.
Our daily activities do not have this arc of history, but our words can have similar, lasting impact. Recently, a colleague was talking about the importance of recognition and appreciation at group meeting. One employee, who rarely spoke up, started nodding and smiling. And right there and then, he took out his wallet and from it he unfolded a tattered, well worn piece of lined paper. It was a thank you note, clearly torn from a spiral bound notebook that he’d received from a supervisor in 1995. He had carried it with him every day for 18 years! We keep these things. They mean something.
The cynic in us may argue that the real purpose behind a thank you note is to advance an agenda. Politicking for a job, schmoozing a client or commending someone’s efforts solely for personal gain. My response is how many of your employees will be talking about the note that you sent to them 18 years from now. That is the essence of the right habits that we should be instilling in our organizations – let alone our children.
As I write this my 17 year old son said, “But, we do say thank you.” “Yes,” I said, “And, when was the last time you actually wrote a thank you note?” Silence. “OK, I get your point, Mom.”
Let’s break the cycle of our cultural demise. Remember to thank the waiter, the airline agent or the check out lady at the grocery store. Stop and recognize the job well done of an unsung employee. Send an email of appreciation. But better yet let’s pick up our pens and jot down a few words. No agenda required, just the lasting pleasure of making someone’s day.