Civility matters: The power of “thank you”

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Today, there is growing sentiment that our society is becoming increasingly abrasive. Popular shows like "The Apprentice", "Hell's Kitchen", and others that have become well-known for their "take no prisoners" attitude are now a staple of modern television. The world of sports, both amateur and professional, is also no exception, with stories regularly surfacing about the disrespectful displays of fans, coaches, and players alike. Renowned sportscaster Bob Costas once commented, ""Incivility, boorishness and crassness are everywhere... And yet we celebrate all this edginess."

Not surprisingly, there is evidence to suggest that our workplaces are also becoming more uncivil. Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, two widely respected authorities in this area, have conducted extensive analyses of the prevalence of disrespect/incivility within the modern workplace. In 1998, they found that one in four respondents (25%) reported witnessing an incident of incivility at work at least once per week. By 2005, this number had doubled. In fact, in the same survey, one in four people reported seeing an act of disrespect/incivility every single day.

This ‘reality' seems to be so entrenched in our day-to-day, we feel almost hopeless to try and counteract it. When confronted with these statistics, some common responses I hear from people are "What difference can I make?" "What can I do?"

This inaction is further hindered by our tendency to rationalize this type of behaviour as acceptable. A very revealing statistic comes from a 2002 survey conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan public opinion research foundation. In their report, they noted that nearly half of the people they surveyed said that "life is so hectic and people are so busy and pressed for time that they forget to be nice."

The power of "thank you"

Putting aside the troubling notion that a sizable percentage of us believe that we are too busy to remember to be nice, the above observations highlight the need to examine the following question:

What is the importance of saying "thank you?"

Taking on the role of Devil's advocate, one might assert that although regularly saying "thank you" is a "nice to have," this sentiment may not be a "must have." Indeed, given the speed of our personal and professional lives, one could be tempted to argue that perhaps we do not need to spend time worrying about saying these things, since they are an unspoken truth. It would be more efficient to eliminate this discourse from our daily conversation.

This is where an examination of the available research is such a powerful learning and awareness tool, as it provides a test of this legitimate question. A recent study spearheaded by Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business may provide an answer. He and his colleague, Francesco Gino, wanted to explore how simply saying "thank you" impacted the nature of our relationships.

In their first experiment, participants were asked to provide feedback on a cover letter for a job application that was crafted by a fictitious student named ‘Eric.' Once the participants had forwarded their comments to him, ‘Eric' sent them another request via email, to help with another one of his cover letters for a different opportunity.

To test the power of "thank you," the researchers divided the participants into two groups. The ONLY difference between the two secondary requests was that in the first case, ‘Eric' thanked the participants for their help with his first cover letter. In the second group, the follow-up requests that were received were exactly the same, with the exception that it did not include any expression of gratitude whatsoever. ‘Eric' just asked for more help.

What the researchers found next will likely not come as a surprise. Twice as many people (66%) who received an expression of thanks from ‘Eric' agreed to help him with his second letter, compared to those who received the second request without any expression of gratitude (32%).

The results became even more interesting when the researchers explored how the sentiments of "thank you" affected the subsequent motivation of the participants to help Eric with his second request. The researchers found that people were not agreeing to help because the "thank you" letter enhanced their self-efficacy (e.g., their sense of competence in providing helpful guidance), but rather because they appreciated the feeling of being needed. Essentially, this acknowledgement gave the participants a sense that they were ‘socially valued.'

Although these initial findings were fascinating, the researchers wanted to expand their investigation of this relationship even further. In a subsequent experiment, they set out to look at how ‘Eric's' behaviour would not only affect his outcomes, but those of the people around him.

In this second study, Grant and Gino provided the exact same scenario as in the first, where Eric asked for help with a cover letter. Once again, following their assistance, he sent a note to the participant, sometimes expression gratitude ("I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful"), sometimes not.

The interesting twist in this version of the experiment was that the day after Eric's follow-up email, the participant received a new request for help from a different student, Steven Rogoff. His message read: "Hi [name], I understand that you participated in a Career Center study to help students improve their job application cover letters. I was wondering if you could give me feedback on a cover letter I prepared. The cover letter is attached. Would you be willing to help me by sending me some comments in the next two days?"

Once again, the question of whether or not the participants were thanked for their initial assistance influenced if they volunteered again. Specifically, for those who received a "thank you" from Eric, 55 percent agreed to assist Steven with his cover letter. However, for those in the "thankless" group, only one-quarter responded positively to Steven's request.

Taken together, these findings suggest that providing a simple "thank you" substantially increases our willingness to help those around us.

Why "thank you" should matter to you and your organization

The above research has very pertinent implications for our personal and professional lives. Indeed, the next time we ask someone for assistance (e.g., a favour, a review of a document at work, etc.) we should make sure that we express our gratitude and exhibit courtesy to the recipient of our request. This will not only maximize our chances of finding assistance in the future, it will also "pay it forward" to people we may not even know.

A scenario that we often pose to clients attending our "Creating a Respectful Workplace" workshop always generates interesting and fun discussion. We present the following situation. Imagine you are holding the door for someone who is obviously in a hurry. As they approach you, they walk straight through the door, eyes down, and do not say anything to you. How does this make you feel?

We also ask a follow-up question about the next time you see someone coming behind you, what are the chances that you will hold the door open for them? Most times, this question is met with a "None!" or "Probably not." Others suggest that they would try and close the door as quickly as possible, which is met with smiles and some laughter from the group. This rather innocuous example demonstrates the contagious effects of our incivility.

There is also a lesson here regarding its impact on organizational citizenship. Research has shown that good organizational citizens go above and beyond their basic job duties and seek out opportunities wherever possible to assist their coworkers, clients, and organizations. Based on the above research, such organizational citizenship will flourish more in environments in which simple expressions of "please" or "thank you" are prevalent.

Conclusion

A commonly voiced frustration in today's workplace is the lack of respect and civility that we see. This sentiment is often accompanied by an exasperated acceptance of defeat, as it seems like a problem that is too big to solve. However, I would respectfully challenge this assumption based on the above research.

As several prominent academics in the field have shown, a simple "thank you" can profoundly affect the reality we create for ourselves, as well as the realities we create for others. Expressing thanks to those around us creates a win-win scenario. We receive more help, the helper feels valued, and these benefits are likely further bestowed on strangers and co-workers we may not even know. Like the "butterfly effect", these actions spread out into the world around us.

In closing, I would like to say "thank you" to the readers of this and previous columns. I have appreciated your comments and feedback. I strive to make these pieces interesting and relevant and provide an integration of science and practice that may influence positive change within your professional and personal lives. In upcoming columns, I will be continuing to talk about the importance of respect and engagement within the workplace and I look forward to our dialogue.

If you have any questions or comments on this column or personal experiences you would like to share, please contact me at: dowdenc@filion.ca or (613-230-7023).

Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

Managing Director

André Filion & Associates Inc.

 

 

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