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When “thank you” wears out

"Please" and "thank you" are essential but not invincible communication tools.

4 min read


Thank you


Saying “please” and “thank you” is one of the most fundamental communication strategies we use to project our own intentions and gauge the intentions of others. That is why it is crucial to use them in the workplace — arguably, with no exceptions.

This is not a tall order however. Most people, when placed in a roomful of strangers, will default to “please” and “thank you.” The words are great equalizers, and graciousness makes an excellent foundation for any relationship. We know this intuitively, since human beings are hardwired to cooperate, not compete. The words are valuable engagement currencies in the workplace, no doubt about it.

Law of diminishing returns

Yet there is a very important principle to keep in mind when engaging employees through feedback recognition: the law of diminishing returns. It refers to the point at which the level of benefits gained by a certain tactic is less than the amount of energy invested. After that point, the benefits of said tactic diminish rapidly until it wears out its welcome.

“Please” and “thank you” are powerful, but they have their limits. Tangible rewards and recognition like gift cards, displayable awards and in-house fame add an unmistakable layer of excitement to the workplace that “please” and “thank you” have trouble replicating. But where gift cards and merchandise can excite the senses more, those simple gracious words can satisfy us much deeper in our hearts.

Motivational differences

Psychologists call this extrinsic (external) versus intrinsic (internal) motivation, the shorthand of which is, there are things in this world that motivate our extrinsic outer desires (such as material gains and social status), and there are other things that motivate our intrinsic inner desires (such as validation, respect, and inclusion). It is well-established that the human psyche needs a balance of both to reach peak motivation, not just at work, but at any task in life. If we get too much of one over the other, the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Think about it: How great would you really feel over time about being showered with gifts if nobody at work ever gave you the basic respect of “please” and “thank you?” And by the same turn, how fulfilling can “please” and “thank you” really become if they are never backed up with tangible rewards?

Balancing act

We constantly emphasize balance when engaging employees with recognition. Suffice to say, it’s not enough to just be nice. You may have a rewards system with amazing gifts, but as the saying goes, “if you don’t use it; you lose it.” Here are some tips:

  • Don’t overuse email recognition. Sending gratitude out exclusively via email can wear thin fast. Consider balancing email praise with a physical reward or more personal thanks if possible. Research shows that the more personal the gratitude is, the more effective it becomes. Eye contact makes a “thank you” a thousand times more genuine, and even a phone call is more personal.

  • Plot recognition ratios. Managers should figure out a casual-to-formal recognition ratio they feel comfortable with. Perhaps they remember to issue one tangible reward for every five times they find themselves typing or saying “thank you” to any one employee. Or they simply remember to give out one tangible reward at the end of the week. Whatever works; the idea is to achieve sustainable balance.

  • Be authentic. The X-factor of engagement lies in management’s ability to connect with employees as individuals, build real relationships and find out what truly motivates them. “Please” and “thank you” are great, but through overuse they can become crutches to avoid authentic engagement. Keep in mind the terms are only the beginning of gratitude, and specific rewards beat out generic rewards any day of the week.

Mindful approach

According to WorldatWork, a majority of organizations (42%) allocate 0.1% to 0.3% of payroll costs for recognition program budgets. They are not usually overly expensive or burdensome programs. Still, I would bet real money that several of those programs aren’t getting the added value or efficiency from proper balancing.

We must always keep in mind that employees are a group of random strangers who must make a choice every day to set aside differences and get the work done. Therefore, they must be approached with the same objective balance, no matter how casual or informal workplace relationships become.


Cord Himelstein is vice president, Michael C. Fina Recognition.

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