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Do not overlook the motivational power of a simple thank you

By Andrew McMillan

So now we have a business that knows what it wants to be (both for its customers and employees), has communicated those aims to its staff, is frequently measuring its performance against those aims internally and externally and has a leadership structure aligned to delivering improvement – we’re almost there!  


Andrew McMillan spent more than 20 years with John Lewis Partnership, developing industry-leading customer service across the department store division, before becoming a principal partner at consultancy Engaging Service.


We’re now on to consistency and sustainability and a key element of that is reward and recognition. It’s an area that is commonly overlooked and possibly seen as unnecessary or frivolous. However, a clear reward and recognition strategy, frequently used and consistently applied can have a disproportionately positive effect on the culture of an organisation.  

Of course, what is appropriate depends on the culture of the organisation. What may be seen as childish and possibly condescending in one business could be seen as motivating and fun in another. If an organisation has followed all the stages in my previous articles, by now they should have a strong sense of what is appropriate for their business and what will engage and motivate employees. This doesn’t mean having a complex structure or spending lots of money, but it does require an explicit and direct link to the behaviour the organisation is trying to engender.

Many years ago, Ken Blanchard wrote The One Minute Manager and those of you who have read this now legendary book may remember “catching people doing something right” as a prerequisite of leadership.

The challenge for many managers is they are just too busy. Well, if you have implemented the leadership changes from the last article, you will have found time to spend each day with the people you lead and if you are doing that, you have the foundation for a reward and recognition process in place already. In other words, frequent verbal recognition for something done well can have an incredible effect in an organisation that hasn’t been used to it.  

Often in these organisations, managers have spoken to their teams when something has gone wrong or at their annual appraisals, so recognition for very small, routine things done well can come as a surprise. However, stick with it through the potential incredulity and the team will start to respond in ways you would have never imagined.

Supplementary approaches,  such as for something that warrants a little more than verbal recognition, might include written notes of thanks. In a world of instant communication and email, a handwritten note shows you have made a little extra effort and really care. If you want to start spending a little money at this stage you might even include a scratch card for a bit of fun.

Initial reactions might be “I was just doing my job”, but that is the point. What we are trying to engender is a culture of excellence, self-esteem and pride in a job well done.  

The next step is to implement a formal reward and recognition scheme, which will require a budget. This doesn’t have to be significant ­– perhaps £10 per head, per annum – but can make a really big difference and is a small cost compared with training or marketing budgets that won’t necessarily produce such tangible results.  That’s not to say you should mechanically spend £10 on each employee each year, but it does give a scale and set a budget requirement for the scheme.  

Rewards here should be made through a formal process that allows for peer-to-peer recognition as well as those nominated by managers. Even on such a small budget, this would allow occasional rewards such as a bottle of champagne, theatre tickets, flowers or even a weekend break.  

The pinnacle of any recognition and reward scheme should be an annual awards ceremony. This can be a culmination of the smaller awards given over the year or a collection of categories voted for by employees, but it is important that the categories reflect the behavioural aims of the organisation such as ‘leader of the year’, ‘most support to their colleagues’, ‘most customer focused’ etc.

In a large organisation, this can be funded from the residue of the £10 per head budget, as it is unlikely every employee will have justified a smaller award throughout the year. I have seen prizes at these awards vary from weekends away in New York to an engraved glass trophy, but both approaches have an equally beneficial effect on the organisation.

If the ceremonies are well executed, the benefits go beyond just the recipients of the awards as other employees will be quick to celebrate the recipient’s success and will have a sense of pride that someone in their team has been a winner.  

If you remain doubtful, then just start by trying the first two steps, which involve some effort but very little cost. Providing it is positioned with care within the culture of the organisation you will be amazed at the power of a simple “thank you”.

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  • Paul Cape - - 09/09/2013 10:40

    It is amazing how far gratitude goes in creating the right environment - one of success. Celebrating daily success seems to have been lost over the years replaced by growls and negatives. A friend of mine has recently started her whole organisation thanking anyone who calls into the business even if they are just trying to sell them something and she has noticed a raised resonance within the organization towards gratitude and along with that the business has become busier with better clients. Thank you for the article Andrew it is appreciated