Note to managers: A little recognition goes a long way

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Steve Kelman shares research on the impact a simple thank-you note can have with the workforce.

Between Christmas and New Year’s an email arrived in my inbox from Harvard Business Review on that publication’s most-popular stories from 2021. Opening it up, I was pleased to discover that one of these articles involved motivating public sector employees. It was entitled Research: A Little Recognition Can Provide a Big Morale Boost, and written by Shibeal O'Flaherty, Michael T. Sanders, and Ashley Whillans.

With their interest in public sector employees, these authors emphasize motivational tools that don’t require extra pay for performance, since such tools are seldom available in any significant way in the public sector.

The authors conducted an experiment among public sector social workers. Half of a randomly selected sample received a letter at home from their supervisor praising their work. The other half received no letter. The short letters all included a sentence stating that “your work has consistently had a positive impact on the children you work with,” and then another sentence the individual supervisors composed themselves. One month after this simple intervention, “social workers who received a letter reported feeling significantly more valued and more supported by their organization” than those who didn’t; there was also a decrease (though not quite statistically significant) in sickness absenteeism.

Research suggests that “recognizing your employees can be particularly impactful at key temporal landmarks” – for example, a thank you note delivered at the conclusion of a major project. The authors suggest that letters be signed by the manager in ink. One study found that employees were significantly more productive after receiving a physical, non-monetary gift than when they received small financial gifts. Employees also reported feeling more valued when they could see that their employer took the time and effort to choose, purchase and wrap the gift.

The authors’ advice to managers is to “start small.” They wrote: “Instituting symbolic awards shouldn’t feel like a daunting, Herculean task. The whole point of symbolic awards is that they’re cost-effective (typically free!) and easy to implement. If you’re not sure where to start, try one of these ideas: 1) write a short, personalized note expressing gratitude for an employee’s recent good performance, 2) publicly recognize an employee’s contributions in your next team meeting, 3) hold a morale-building meeting to celebrate your team’s successes.”

What is interesting is that the vast majority of Harvard Business Review readers are oriented toward the private sector. That the magazine devotes attention to non-monetary recognition tools suggests that these tools work across sectors, which is good news for us in the public sector. where the wide range of tools, including economic ones, private managers can use is not available.

Many of the economic tools commonly used in the private sector are not practical in government. But non-monetary recognition tools are always available to us as government managers. We should all be using them.