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Career Coach: The power of 'thank you'

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Monday, July 5, 2010

One thing that has been bugging me lately is: What ever happened to common courtesy? Manners seem to have disappeared. And I'm not just talking about holding the door open for people, but just a simple thank-you when someone does something nice for you. The lack of manners got me wondering: How much of an impact does this have on how successful people are? I have always known and seen it documented that niceness wins in many difficult negotiations more than bullying does. Does being polite also help people in the job market and in their career success?

Think about this: When was the last time you wrote or received a handwritten note of thanks or even a thank-you e-mail? Just the other day, I was talking to a recruiter who told me that she received more than 3,000 applications for 200 teaching jobs and only one person took the time to send her a thank-you note for her assistance in the job search process. In addition, she said that many of the applicants actually called her back the same day they applied or within the next day to harass her about what she was doing about getting them a job. She was flabbergasted by their overly aggressive tone and style. You can imagine how that one person who sent a thank-you note stood out in that crowd. And that is not a unique story. I hear many more just like it.

Today, sending a thank-you has become a competitive advantage for job applicants or employees. It is so rare that it actually differentiates a person from the rest of the group. Some studies have found that more than 50 percent of people don't say thanks and few express any appreciation at all. Managers say that manners practiced inside a firm, especially thank-yous, reveal a lot about how a person might be treating customers outside of the firm, so to managers, manners are especially important.

The benefits of saying thank you (for those of you who need to know "what's in it for me") are that you stand out, you can strengthen your relationship with the other side, it motivates and reinforces the other party to continue to engage in the nice or helpful behavior and it sends a message about you (i.e., the quality of your upbringing) and/or your company (i.e., the professionalism of your firm).

Why don't people say thanks or express their appreciation? Maybe they received poor training or role modeling from their parents, teachers or families. Maybe with today's busy times, they are so busy (or self-absorbed) that they don't even think about anyone but themselves. Neglecting to thank others can reflect on your selfishness and might tell others that you think people should be doing those things for you. Maybe some people intend to thank others, but they are procrastinators. If enough time has gone by, they are embarrassed to send a late thank-you note. Or maybe they don't need to hear any appreciation themselves, so they figure no one else needs to hear it either.

One of the Hogan assessments that measure a person's underlying motives and values (http://www.hoganassessments.com) measures "recognition" as one of the values that might be important to people. I have coached many executives whose recognition score was low and since this value or motive was not important to them, they figured it was not important to anyone else. Generally, with these executives, their own staff rate them low in providing recognition or thanks to employees. In fact, some of the employees stated that they hadn't heard a thank-you from the boss in quite some time.

What are some suggestions for thanking others? The best thing you can do is to use a handwritten note of thanks and send it in the mail. This is so rare today that it really does stand out. If for some reason you cannot send a handwritten note, then at least send a thank-you via e-mail. In your note, be warm, personal and sincere. It is important not to use a sarcastic tone when thanking someone since a thank-you is supposed to build someone up. The timing of your thank-you is also important. You should respond to someone within 48 hours of receiving the assistance, gift, help, etc. Of course, in some situations you can thank the person immediately if you are together. If you are late, you should still send the note. It is better to send a note and apologize for being late in thanking the person than to never send any note at all.

So don't underestimate the power of saying thank you. Even though moving ahead in a firm is typically based on performance and results, how a person interacts with others is hard to overlook. Even the management guru Peter Drucker noted that "manners -- simple things like saying 'please' and 'thank you' enable two people to work together" while "bad manners rub people raw; they leave permanent scars." Likewise, Marshall Goldsmith writes in his book, "What Got You Here Won't Get You There," that one of the challenges for people is "failing to express gratitude -- the most basic form of bad manners." Thus, having manners and saying thank-you actually does make a difference to your success and to the lives of others around you. And with that, thank you for reading this column and sending me your thoughts.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.


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