John, the CEO of a sales organization, sent an email to Tim, an employee several levels below, to complement him on his performance in a recent meeting. Tim did not respond to the email.
About a week later, he was in John’s office applying for an open position that would have been a promotion into a management role, when John asked him whether he had received the email. Yes, Tim said, he had. Why, John asked, hadn’t he responded? Tim said he didn’t see the need.
But Tim was wrong. John’s email deserved, at the very least, a “thank you.”
Tim didn’t get the promotion. Was he passed over solely because he didn’t thank John for the positive feedback? No. But was Tim’s lack of response one piece of the Tim puzzle that convinced John he should choose a better candidate? Undoubtedly.
Before you accuse John of being trivial or over-sensitive, before you condemn his poor hiring judgment, consider what saying “thank you” represents.
On a basic level, it communicates that you received the email. While there’s a lot of advice that discourages writing “thank you” emails because they contribute to email overload, I disagree. I answer every real email I receive because I want to avoid the recipient’s “Did Peter get my email and what’s he thinking?” angst. It takes three seconds to respond “thanks” and it completes the transaction initiated by the sender.
But an email that contains emotional content — like a compliment — deserves something longer: a real, thought-out “thank you” as opposed to a simple I-received-your-email “thank you.” When you offer a real thought-out “thank you” to someone, you’re acknowledging her effort, appreciating her thoughtfulness, recognizing her intent, and offering feedback on the impact of her actions.
Still, it’s more than that. Those things are rational, but saying “thank you” is mostly an emotional act. It connects one person to another. Saying “thank you” doesn’t just acknowledge someone’s effort, thoughtfulness, intent, or action. It acknowledges the person himself.
Acknowledging other people is a critical responsibility — perhaps the critical responsibility — of a great manager, especially in sales. Actually great manager is too high a bar. I might say it’s the critical skill of a good manager but even that’s understating it.
Acknowledging each other is our basic responsibility as human beings living in community with other human beings.
Go ahead and argue: We’re all too busy at work and in life to spend time exchanging pleasantries. If John needs so much stroking, he can’t possibly be a good CEO. He’s out of touch with the digital age where no answers are the accepted norm. If Tim is doing his work well, that’s all that matters. People are paid to do their jobs and they don’t need to be thanked. Saying “thank you” to your CEO for a nice email is nothing more than brown-nosing.
I would disagree with all those arguments. It doesn’t take long to say “thank you,” but it does take caring. John is an excellent CEO, with a staff, board, and shareholders who love him and for whom he delivers a high growth rate and excellent results. Not answering someone’s communication — text or email or phone call — is not an accepted norm, it represents a fundamental breakdown in communication about which I often hear people complain. Tim might be good at certain aspects of his job but he’s not “doing his work well,” if he’s not acknowledging the people around him. And, finally, saying “thank you” isn’t brown-nosing, it’s nice.
This all becomes more obvious if you take away the digital element. How would you feel if you complimented someone in person and he just walked away from you without saying anything? Weird, right?
Saying “thank you” — sincerely and with heart — feels good. Not just to the person receiving it, but also to the person offering it. And that’s part of work too. It’s hard to remember, as we process our hundredth email, that behind each message is a person..
Tim made a mistake by not appreciating John’s effort or acknowledging his sentiment. I don’t want to make that same mistake.
Peter Bregman (HBR Blogger)