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Here’s to Saying Thank You from the Bottom-Up

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Saying thanks to a colleague or boss is pretty straight-forward and easy. Writing a note of thanks can be a bit trickier but is not overly taxing. Right? Then what’s holding people back? Research indicates that only 10% of adults say thanks to a colleague every day, and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss. Sue Shellenbarger recently reported these findings in her Wall Street Journal blog and then proceeded to present the case for managers upping the praise quota in the workplace.

There are excellent, research-based reasons for encouraging managers to give thanks to employees using a typical top-down approach. For starters, it is one of the best motivational tools that has no costs. But given the enormous personal and professional impact positive interactions, like giving thanks, can have, I’d like to suggest that a habit of daily thank-yous should be a bottom-up endeavor implemented at the lowest level of the organizational hierarchy.

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, presents compelling reasons for saying thank you on a regular basis. First, Achor tells us that it takes 2.9013 positive interactions to override one negative interaction. And more importantly, if we want our teams to operate at their very best, then a ratio of 6 positive to 1 negative interaction is ideal. I question how plausible it is for one manager to meet those numbers. However, if every employee incorporated praise and gratitude into his or her workday, that ratio seems feasible.

We need to remind ourselves that managers do not need to be the starting point of all organizational efforts for improvement, nor do they have a monopoly on saying thanks. A bottom-up thank you experiment could have implications large or small. At best, a single individual who chooses to follow the advice presented below could trigger a cultural shift toward gratitude and thanks that spreads throughout an entire organization. But at a minimum, if these same tips are taken to heart by that same lone reader and no cascading effect occurs, that reader will have improved his or her likelihood to recognize positive opportunities in the workplace and will be more likely to gravitate toward those people or events that are positive in the future. Achor calls this the “positive tetris effect”.

Here are some Dos and Don’ts for starting 2013 off right by regularly saying thanks to your peers, colleagues, co-workers, and even your boss.


1. Make it a habit. Commit to saying thanks to someone – anyone – every single day. Habits are hard to form but once formed can have an enormous impact on personal performance. What we know about forming strong habits is that you need a cue (morning coffee, mid-day e-mail check, organizing desk for tomorrow) and a reward (enjoying coffee, mid-day break, positive feeling as you leave the workplace). Once you start expecting the reward, it will become automatic for you to thank someone every day.
2. Use various forms of communication – verbal, hand-written note, text, e-mail. Mix it up and eventually you may find a preferred method. I gravitate toward the hand written note and keep a stash of cheap cards in my glove compartment and desk drawer for exactly this purpose.
3. Tell someone about your thank you experiment. This may seem a bit do-goody and show-off-y. Chose the person you plan to tell with care. Share the personal benefits of thanking others. Who knows, maybe you could start a revolution?


1. Be insincere. Insincere thanks can be sniffed out a mile away. Focus your attention on the acts of helpfulness, kindness, or humor that genuinely made your day better.
2. Be backhanded. Giving thanks to someone while also including a jab (“Despite your flubbing up Harrison’s first name, you pulled off a great presentation.”) is a backhanded compliment. It takes a bit of humility to thank someone sincerely. If backhanded compliments are a habit of yours, consider what motivates your phrasing. Nervousness or fear of looking emasculated and overly tender-hearted in the workplace can prompt poor thanking skills. Be aware of your tendencies and try to adjust accordingly.
3. Focus narrowly. It’s easiest to thank people we work with frequently and know well. As you become more comfortable thanking others, spread the scope of your positive interactions and thank individuals who you see less regularly.

Get going! There’s no need to wait for your organization to implement a thanking mandate. Help yourself, your co-workers, and your life by habitually thanking the individuals that take the work out of working.

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