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How Leaders Use "Thank You" to Inspire Individuals and Teams


There has been little academic investigation into the impact of saying "thank you" to inspire individuals and teams. Academicians do not seem to have considered this common leadership action, and self-proclaimed leadership experts publishing on the magazine circuit do not mention this simple method that may be the most basic way to reward and honor behavior. However, I make the brazen claim—without data or significant review—that the elementary action of giving thanks to constituents for their efforts is an important way that leaders inspire their followers. This simple act can make a positive difference in the motivation and success of individuals and teams.

There is evidence that prominent leaders do use thank yous to promote goodwill among their staff. For instance, Richard Branson , billionaire business leader, is adamant that a thank you that is well-timed and given appropriately can make a difference and promote organizational success. He points out that praise is essential, and that people flourish when their wins are celebrated publicly. Moreover, he suggests that this an essential activity to retain top talent.

While Branson does not explain why top talent is especially motivated by praise, it could be suggested that once top talent is highly compensated—which is true for most individuals who are experts in their fields—additional monetary remuneration loses its importance. If this is true, then praise may be necessary to promote the good will and feelings of high achievers. Praising individuals publicly is probably a good way to celebrate success. Presumably team praise would motivate for similar reasons.


Awards and rewards for individuals and teams that successfully complete assignments are appropriate because they motivate individuals to continue and expand efforts to succeed in achieving goals. Rewards also help retain good employees. The simplest, and often overlooked, reward is the act of thanking people for their efforts. Generally, this reward is overlooked as a motivator. This may be because expressing a thank you would appear to be a reward without cost. However, despite the fact that thank yous are not expense items, they can be one valuable way of rewarding past behavior and motivating future actions. Receiving thanks for efforts may also increase overall job satisfaction. Even if an organization has a sophisticated reward program in place that supports and promotes leadership goals, repeated thank yous to individuals and teams are still essential. The recommendation is that any rewards program incorporate a thank you for successfully completed assignments and projects. It might even be claimed that failed projects deserve thank yous. That idea will be held for another discussion. The thank you is important because it generally comes from the leadership hierarchy. When leadership uses a thank you to reward individuals and teams, the action recognizes contributions of individuals and teams. In large and complex organizations, where leadership may be physically remote and seemingly unconnected with lower echelons of workers, this action represents a recognition of contributions that can equal or exceed other types of rewards. Being recognized from above can be a thrill and a powerful motivator. Leaders who miss this point because the thank you as reward does not generate an offsetting expense miss a big point about motivation.


When thanking individuals for their work, either individually or within teams, there are important points to consider. The following bullets highlight some of the most important aspects of a thank you.

  • Link the thank you to the goal that was achieved. This makes the praise specific and reinforces organizational goals. Be sure and indicate how specific actions supported the larger and often broad-based objectives.

  • Be specific as possible with respect to who, what, when, and where. Authentic praise needs to include as many of these aspects as possible. If it is a team being praised, give the names of the team members and specific aspects that each contributed to the success.

  • Consider both team and individual thank yous as appropriate. Be sure you are praising the correct people or teams. Missing someone who should be celebrated can do substantial damage.

  • Celebrate successes publicly. Choose the venue for the thank you reward carefully, and then lavish praise. While praise can be overdone, recognize that it is more often understated. Use appropriate superlatives and detail goals achieved.

  • Along with the ways to successfully celebrate wins and praise individuals and teams, come caveats about how not to praise. The following are important points. Don't praise people unless they are directly involved in a success. Too often, a team manager who has been conspicuously absent from a team gets praise. It may take some digging into details, but make sure bystanders with little impact on the success of a project are not lavishly praised.

  • Be sincere. If the praise isn't honest and heartfelt, others will see through the rouse and the outcome will not be authentic praise, but rather a sham attempt to motivate.

  • Give a thank you without negatives. Do not thank people for not doing something. While this may seem obvious, sometimes the best attempts at praising can fail because the delivery obfuscates the praise.

Avoiding these pitfalls can help make thank yous effective.


Goodwill and even respect can be destroyed if the courtesy aspect of thank you is ignored. The following example could be considered extreme, but possibly is a common example of how individuals squander their leadership worth by failing in what should be a most basic act of respect. Years ago, I worked with an executive who was not very well-liked by his teammates and direct reports. He wasn’t really a bad guy, but he just didn’t tell people when they had done good work and “thank you” was not part of his vocabulary. It all came to a head one day when he faced a copier that was out of paper. He asked someone nearby to refill the paper tray. After the person had completed the task, he was about to walk away, having not even thanked the person for doing this task. I was so aghast that I walked over to him and said quietly (hopefully) that I thought goodwill towards him would be greatly increased if he simply told the employee “thanks.” He said to me –“Thanks goes without saying.” I was astounded and told him that I thought that “Thanks was always required and never goes without saying.” I don’t think I got through to him, but I always remind myself that “the requirement to thank is essential.” Common courtesy is one of the basics in day-to-day personal interactions. The act of thanking someone is a cultural norm that shows respect. Everyone should understand this, and leaders must be even more aware of opportunities to provide positive feedback—by way of a thank you. However, for leaders thanking must become a skill that is strengthened by use in many types of situations. The ability to thank individuals and teams should be practiced and honed. A skilled leader will make sure that he or she goes beyond the common courtesy thank you to a crafted message of thanks that respects and honors past efforts and inspires future contributions to organizational goals.


It may seem to some that a thank you is poor and insufficient reward for work that is done well. While additional rewards may be appropriate; it is important not to forget the basic requirement to thank either an individual or a team. Praise given by means of a thank you is essential. Many more sophisticated reward systems may be employed, but those alone—without the requisite thank you may fall short in effectiveness. Reasons to thank employees are many. Not only does this form of praise recognizes good work but thank yous also motivate individuals and teams to pursue more achievements. Celebrating through giving appropriate thank yous may also be an important way to retain high achievers within an organization. Good leaders understand the importance of giving praise through thanking and celebrating organizational and project wins. Lavishing praise on those individuals and teams that have worked diligently to accomplish organizational goals are clear to them. Richard Branson, serial entrepreneur and well-known leader, is a role model for giving thanks to employees who have approached and succeeded in accomplishing important goals.

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