Quality Leadership
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What Counts Is What's Heard, Not What's Said

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

There are two primary things to remember when saying thank you: First, it's a powerful statement; second, there is no one-size-fits-all way to say it.

Keep in mind also that there are two distinct reasons for saying thank you -- either in a corporate world or a personal setting -- and, as with so much in the field of quality, one reason is emotional and one rational.

With the emotional reason, the person receiving the thanks deserves it; he or she has done something that is appreciated by the thanks-giver, and he or she deserves the emotional rush that comes from feeling thanked. By and large, people know when they deserve to be thanked, and they will feel resentment when they aren't. There is little neutral ground here. Saying thank you can be done correctly or badly; there is little chance it can be ignored at no risk.

The rational reason for saying thank you is more straightforward. If the person being thanked hears the thank you, the odds are very good that he or she will do more of whatever it was that prompted the gratitude. This explains why saying thank you should be done with some thought. Thanking people for the wrong reason, or for no reason, can easily reinforce behavior that doesn't contribute to the organization (or the family).

What makes all this difficult is that one size doesn't fit all. For a variety of reasons (Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a good place to start for anyone wanting to add an intellectual element to this discussion), recognition that excites one person will bore the second and cause a third person to shake his or her head quizzically.

Take, for example, money: "You give me money, and I know you are grateful," some people say. Others react by thinking -- or saying -- something along the lines of, "Well, of course you should give me money. I'm underpaid. Now, how are you going to say thank you?"

The same variations in personal perception hold true with symbolic gifts such as plaques or certificates, with public recognition such as printed articles or publicly displaying someone's name, or any other approach ever tried. Each has its place. No one thing does it all the time. The only sure method is to say thank you in several different ways to each deserving person. As with any form of communication, the important thing is what's heard, not what's said.

What follows is a story from one of our books. It is one of the 93 lessons included in Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation and Measurement (Wiley, 1992). It offers a gentle look at the ways different people hear thank you and a way to explain that idea to others.


Goldilocks and the Three Thank Yous

Goldilocks was depressed. She felt guilty about having used the Three Bears' home for a rest, eating some of their food and taking a nap. Worse yet, she knew it was wrong to leave without saying thank you. Her mother had told her so.

She decided to square things by sending presents to each of the Three Bears. All of them had contributed to her comfort (although she liked Baby Bear's contributions best), and she wanted to make sure she gave each of the three something personal. She knew they deserved it.

She also knew that she might want to sit in a rocker or take another nap someday. And she had really liked that third bowl of porridge.

But what to give? For Papa Bear, she settled on having the local newspaper print a story about what a great bear he was. She figured the public recognition of his character and accomplishments would be just the thing.

On the same day the story about Papa Bear appeared in the paper, a package and an envelope arrived at the Bear residence, the former for Mama Bear and the latter for Baby Bear. Mama opened her package and found a lovely plaque with the engraved message, "With thanks from Goldilocks to a GREAT BEAR -- Mama Bear." Baby Bear opened his envelope and found a check for $25. Goldilocks had written "Thank you" in the lower left-hand corner of the check.

The Bears were not pleased. Papa Bear was very shy and was made uncomfortable by the newspaper story. Mama Bear already had all the plaques she needed. And Baby Bear knew that the check would be put in a bank somewhere for his future. The dinner conversation at the Bear residence was lively.

Papa Bear said to Mama Bear, "You know, I'm sure that Goldilocks meant well, but I don't really like having my name splashed all over the paper. It would have been better if the whole family was featured. On the other hand, I could use a little money."

Mama Bear said, "I know what you mean. I know you don't really like that kind of publicity -- even if you do deserve it -- but I wouldn't have minded a story like that. It would have really felt good to see my name in print. I would have loved to have sent a copy to my mother."

Baby Bear, who already had turned his check over to his father, asked Mama Bear, "Can I have your plaque? Maybe we could have it changed to read `Baby Bear.' "

They all agreed it would have been very nice if Goldilocks had come to say thanks in person. Somehow, it seemed insincere for things to just show up out of the blue.

Goldilocks never was invited to the lovely little house in the forest. In fact, one day when she did venture into the woods to find the house, she found a sign on the door that read, "Goldilocks -- Keep Out."

"Ingrates," she muttered, as she turned away. "I said 'thank you.' "


About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).

Please write to us at  ptownsend@qualitydigest.com. We look forward to hearing from you.


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