Thank-you. The happiest word

Last Monday, I arrived at an office I’ve visited a number of times before, and saw that there had been some changes in the space. One of the colleagues had attempted to re-design the office over the weekend. My immediate – and vocal – reaction was something like ‘Wow! This is amazing. How did this happen? It looks completely different!’

Despite the outburst, my enthusiasm was quickly tempered. Almost immediately, another colleague chipped in with lengthy comments about what didn’t work about the new design. I found myself in an interesting position. This is not my office, but I do know that the use of the space has been the cause of a lot of tension between staff. And… I couldn’t help myself. I started waxing lyrical about what I did like about the changes as a show of appreciation. Afterwards, I got to thinking about why I felt compelled to do this.

In all the feedback, there was one small word that was missing: thank-you.

You see, it didn’t really matter whether one of the desks should be moved a metre to the left, or whether staff would want to be able to open the windows in the far right corner in the summer. At least, these wranglings should not have been the priority. In that moment, the most important thing was that the staff member had done something proactive. The biggest interior design achievement was psychological rather than physical – the decision to break away from complaining to doing something about it. It was a gesture of goodwill that could have been rewarded.

It took me back to a session I facilitated in 2011 with a team of hospital staff who had taken the happiness at work survey and had achieved really low scores in relation to feeling that their work had a positive social impact. This was unexpected given that they worked in caring professions. As staff worked through possible reasons why this could be the case, they kept coming back to one word: thank-you. They didn’t say it enough to each other.

As the discussion was unfolding I remember questioning whether our insight was ‘profound’ enough. I could just imagine some senior manager coming to me in a few days and saying, so we did the survey and you ran some sessions with us, and what we have learned is that we need to appreciate each other a bit more. Is that all you have got for us?

But they didn’t. Instead, they told me they hadn’t had a conversation at work quite like this before. They saw the insight as an opportunity to boost staff morale. So I became curious. I wondered what would happen if I started work conversations with a ‘thank-you’ more often?

When I say thank you to a colleague, it is an endorsement. It is a way of saying ‘your contribution matters to me’. That experience, of feeling valued, is something we each have the power to give or take away from colleagues. As an added bonus I have noticed that with every thank-you I give out, I find my own work more rewarding. And as others know I appreciate them, more often than not they reciprocate by showing how they appreciate me. This changes how I see my contribution to the wider team effort and it motivates me to do even better.

I would love to widen the experiment – and we’re interested in your feedback. What does a thank-you do for your happiness at work?

Jody AkedJody has been improving lives with applied behavioural science for over twelve years and helps our clients kick-start positive change from the boardroom to the factory floor. Jody has vast experience consulting with a diverse range of organizations both public and private, and developed the Five Ways to Well-being alongside Nic, which went on to form the foundation of public health advice across the globe.

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