Small Gestures Make a Big Difference at Work

Little acts of appreciation build a climate of collegiality and performance.

Posted Feb 07, 2020

Jopwell/Pexels
Source: Jopwell/Pexels

When was the last time you took a colleague to lunch to show your gratitude for their hard work? Do you make a point of regularly saying “thank you” to the people who work with you? Have you ever bought your colleague who is a baseball fanatic a collectible baseball card or a mug displaying her favorite team’s logo to show how helpful she has been in getting important work done? These sorts of small acts of appreciation play a major role in the kind of relationships you develop at work and the level and quality of output that you can expect will be produced by your colleagues.

Classic research in organizational behavior conducted in the 1940’s found that leadership involves two primary activities. One involves focusing on tasks and the other involves a focus on relationships. The best leaders, and the best co-workers who demonstrate leadership, know that productivity and morale are heavily influenced not only by attending to and monitoring task issues such as deadlines, budgets, project plans, and quality standards, but also by paying attention to how we treat the people we interact with on a daily basis. They also know that small acts of kindness, appreciation, and recognition go a long way towards creating a climate of high performance.

This is not to suggest that focusing on tasks and materially rewarding people for good performance is unimportant. It simply highlights the fact that the casual, seemingly insignificant ways we treat and recognize people can sometimes play a bigger role in producing positive work attitudes and performance than the seemingly more businesslike, task-oriented activities many managers focus on, sometimes exclusively.

Human beings are communal creatures neurologically attuned to the subtleties of social interaction. We are designed to detect, remember, and respond to the small acts of gratefulness, appreciation, and acknowledgment in our daily encounters with others. These small acts play a major role in determining how we feel at work, our job attitudes, and how motivated we are to invest ourselves in our roles.

Adam Grant and Francesca Gino looked at what happened to the productivity of university fundraisers when a senior manager engaged in the small gesture of showing gratitude for their work. The researchers had the Director of Annual Giving visit the university and perform a seemingly minor deed—he personally thanked the telephone fundraisers for their efforts. Although perhaps a nice gesture, most people wouldn’t consider this an example of particularly great or effective leadership.

But when the researchers looked at the number of phone calls the fundraisers placed the following week they found that compared to those who had not received a thank you, those who had received the Director’s thanks ended up placing a lot more calls (63 vs. 41). The simple act of demonstrating gratefulness for people’s work had a major impact on the employees’ work output.

Consider another example. Anna Rice and her colleagues at Western Michigan University ran a study to see what effect a manager’s praise would have on improving the customer service of employees at a grocery store. Specifically, they wanted to see if the frequency with which employees smiled at customers, make eye contact with them, and offered customers appropriate greetings and closings, such as saying “Good morning” and “Have a nice day,” would change if the manager offered praise for such behavior.

As a first step, the researchers noted that the level of customer service the employees provided was not very high. Employees offered appropriate greetings only 12 percent of the time and appropriate closings only 8 percent of the time. They then had the store manager clarify the customer service behavior that was expected of employees and offer them praise by saying things like “Great job on your greeting” or “That was great customer service” when he caught them performing an appropriate act.

The results were pretty dramatic. Correct greetings rose to 66 percent and correct closing rose to 70 percent. Even more striking was that when the researchers followed up 48 weeks later, employees were still performing correct greetings 70 percent of the time, and proper closings 77 percent of the time. The lesson seems clear: Small acts of recognition can have a big impact on important work outcomes.

Imagine that you happen to know that one of your direct reports likes to play guitar as a hobby. She has various types of guitars at home and will occasionally regale her closest friends with an impromptu performance. Now imagine that this employee goes the extra mile at work one week. Maybe she comes in on Saturday to help meet an important deadline, or volunteers to sit on a committee nobody else wants to get involved with. It goes without saying that she would undoubtedly be pleased if you thanked her and showed recognition for her effort and dedication.

But imagine you do one better. Imagine that on Monday morning she arrives at her cubicle to find some sheet music for guitar on her desk with a little note of gratitude. It would likely be an understatement to say that she would feel appreciated. These sorts of small gestures demonstrate genuine caring for your people, and have long been recognized as crucial elements of effective leadership.

So, when you’re at work be sure to say “thank you” when people help you out, offer immediate and public praise when people do a good job, and remember to keep a stash of baseball cards in your desk.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Your Workplace magazine