Thank You Very Little: Why e-Thank Yous Really Don’t Work

January 31, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

A week or so ago, USA Today picked up a statistic from our Fall Workforce Mood Tracker report, which found that nearly 75% of workers find eThankyous with no reward underwhelming or disappointing.

This statistic is uncomfortable for some of us.

For one thing, we all have seen those studies from the 70s and 80s that told us that rewards don’t work, or suggested they could actually be demotivating.  Studies in the 90s and later have actually debunked this view—calling them out as myths.

In fact, a study by Robert Eisenberger and Judy Cameron published in the American Psychology  Journal found that “reward, when used appropriately, has a much more favorable effect on task interest and creativity than is popularly supposed.” A similar study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “employees’ intrinsic job interest mediated a positive relationship between expected reward for high performance and creative suggestions offered at work.”

But perhaps the more personal reason is that it’s tough for most people to admit that they find an eThankyou disappointing. For one thing, we don’t want to feel shallow or greedy or materialistic. It really is about the praise, not the prize, and most of us understand that. But the fact remains that an eThankyou alone is weak in its ability to really make us feel special or appreciated.  Which is puzzling, but true.

Skeptical? Well, here’s a scenario Derek Irvine likes to use. Imagine you invite two friends over for a nice dinner party. One of them writes you a note and thanks you very much for inviting them. The other writes the same note, and then brings you a nice bottle of wine.

Which friend makes you feel more appreciated? I’m guessing friend #2, who brought the wine with her note. And the survey we did reflects that. The question then becomes, why? Here are a few ideas.

We value things that require a little effort:
The old adage “it’s the thought that counts” really means “it’s the effort that counts”. People prefer comments on Facebook to simple “likes” because they take time and thought to write. People (and Miss Manners) prefer personal thank you messages to pre-printed greeting cards, and that is mainly because it takes time to sit down and craft a note from the heart. When a giver goes to the trouble of “putting his money where his mouth is” and offers something with an inherent and independent value, such as a tangible reward, we assign a related value to that thank you. The effort is the relationship.  People who can only bother to click “like” or offer a one-click e-card with no value, give us the message that we are not worth the added effort or cost… and that directly informs the degree to which we value the reward.

We value things with substance:
The electronic medium is ephemeral. We look at things once or twice and then they usually disappear. How many times have you returned to re-read an e-card you got for doing something great at work? (This is one of the reasons we design our recognition with social recognition—where people can add congratulations, and extend that recognition moment.) But when a thank you is accompanied by a meaningful reward it becomes sticky. It lasts.  I think I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post that I was saving up my reward points to take my daughter to Disney. Well, we went in January and it was amazing. More than once on that trip I reflected on how much more I was able to do because of the rewards I’d gotten. Now I have this photo on my desk of my kid with Cinderella… and when I see it, it makes me feel good about my job and my company and the hard work I was recognized for. That’s not ephemeral at all.

We value proportion and fairness:
One major flaw with e-cards is that they are one-size-fits-all. When the system has only one “no-value” response to any great performance, it is impossible to calibrate the level of the reward to the value of the contribution. A great reward program includes multiple tiers so that we can recognize different degrees of meaningful contribution. For example, an employee who worked late to turn in a terrific presentation to the board might be recognized at one level, while an employee who spent four months working late nights to meet a major product deadline can be recognized at another. My coworker, the inimitable Kevin Mullins, puts it like this: “When you get your grades in college, an A in ballroom dancing doesn’t  quite mean the same as an A in macro-economics. They are different types of effort, and they should not be rewarded in the same way.”

So as you evaluate e-cards in your reward scenario, it is probably wise to consider these factors seriously. All stigma and myth aside, people just don’t find e-thank you cards as rewarding as appreciation that includes reward. That means e-thankyous can ultimately be detrimental to what you’re trying to achieve with recognition.

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