Saying 'Thank You,' 'I’m Sorry' Is Simple but Meaningful

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek February 23, 2018
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​Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of Employment Resource Group in Appleton, Wis., created paper hearts for each employee to show her appreciation for them.

Saying "thank you" and "I'm sorry" at work is powerful. These simple acts, when genuine, can yield unexpected results.

"Showing gratitude is one of the most important things you can do as a leader," said Tammy Perkins, chief people officer at Fjuri, a marketing and digital strategy firm in Seattle. "Employees appreciate leaders who value their contributions, listen and provide encouragement, which leads to motivation."

Ricky Marton, founder and owner of Be Robin Hood in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., recalled how showing appreciation yielded unexpected results with a marketing student in Orlando who had interned remotely for the store.

The company sells products from clothing brands that donate part of their brands' profits to those in need, and Be Robin Hood donates 10 percent of its own profits to customer-designated charities. In one year, according to Marton, some of those donations resulted in the removal of 149 pounds of trash from waterways around the world, provided jobs for women in Northern Uganda, helped fund organizations working with the medical and educational needs of people in Peru and Haiti, and provided meals to children in need.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Recognition Programs]

The intern was devoted to the company's mission and worked tirelessly to promote the store.

"Typically, interns come in and out as they go through school, but she was different. One day when I had some time, I drove the couple hours to Orlando, took her out to a nice thank-you dinner and presented her with a unique little gift from our company as a sign of our appreciation. 

"She was so blown away that despite her official internship being over, she continued to do things for the company" and unofficially extended her internship through the summer "because she was so in love with the brand and everything we stood for."

Her extra efforts landed the store hourly spots on a Tampa Bay TV news channel for an entire day and got it involved in a local fashion show. 

"She still says her desire to help is fueled by our brand's goal and the special thank-you dinner. This is proof of what can happen with a simple thank-you gesture!"

Authentic Apologies  

A heartfelt "I'm sorry" can defuse a tense situation or remedy a workplace rift. 

"A sincere apology can make a difference by rebuilding productive working relationships and reinforces character, values and accountability," Perkins said. 

Laura MacLeod, who leads staff support groups for the From The Inside Out Project—a New York City consultancy she founded that focuses on conflict resolution, problem solving and listening skills—witnessed the power of the apology while leading a meeting.

When one employee's remark inadvertently offended another, the aggrieved staff member spoke up.

"I found [what you said] very offensive because my partner is in that situation," MacLeod recalled the staff member saying. The co-worker immediately apologized.

"I wasn't thinking," she said the co-worker replied, "and I guess I really had no basis for saying [that]."

The staff member accepted the apology, and the meeting continued.

"We often say things we're not aware may be offensive," MacLeod pointed out. When that happens, the person who is offended should point it out and the other person should listen and offer a genuine apology. 

And don't water-down an apology with "If what I said offended you," she advised.

"The implication is the problem is yours, not mine: 'What I said is generally not offensive and I certainly am fine with it, but if you aren't, I'm sorry.' This is why it feels inauthentic. The person does not see that he [or] she did anything wrong, which is the basis for an apology," she said.

"The importance of saying 'Please,' 'Thank you,' 'I'm sorry' and 'You're welcome' is critical in today's business world. Businesses should be sure to adopt them when training new employees." 

Nancy Friedman, author of nine books on customer service, thinks "I apologize" carries more weight than "I'm sorry." 

" 'I'm sorry' is good yet oftten used in place of 'I apologize.' But 'I'm sorry' is when we step on someone's toes. Or someone passes away. 'I apologize' is a stronger and better word when something has gone wrong in the business world," she said. "Without either one we become cold and rude. Learning to use the right word in the appropriate circumstance is important. If we mishandle a situation, it's 'I apologize.' "

She recommended not saying "no problem" when someone expresses appreciation. 

"[The phrase] tops the list of words that annoy customers and clients. 'Thank you' and 'You're welcome' are not used enough. The importance of each is underrated."

Small Gestures Mean a Lot to Culture 

Expressing thanks and apologies "are critical elements to a company culture and a manager-employee relationship that is built on trust and authenticity," said Katie Rasoul, chief awesome officer at Team Awesome Coaching, a professional training and coaching firm in Milwaukee.

"If an organization or leader truly [is] committed to an open culture, it will be part of the daily fabric of the relationship." 

She recalled how one client "paid it forward" with a $10 box of 250 blank thank-you cards. Members of the executive leadership team each wrote several personal notes to staff members; recipients then wrote a note for someone else.

"Those cards were hanging up in offices and cubicles for years, and it was more personal and meaningful than a standardized recognition program." 

Sharon Hulce's favorite way of showing thanks was constructing paper hearts and personally delivering them to each of her 11 employees every day from Feb. 1-14 this year. Each heart contained a note describing something that Hulce, the president and CEO of Employment Resource Group in Appleton, Wis., loved about that person.

Hulce invested about four hours to create the 154 hearts, which she distributed over two weeks "because it created excitement every day to see what the new heart said," she explained. Employees displayed their paper hearts in their work areas, and her gesture was so well-received that workers created a video to thank her. 

It's important that leaders let employees know they care for them as individuals, Hulce said. 

"The return on investment was endless. Saying 'thank you' doesn't make leaders weak; it makes them human."   

Editor's note: Kathy Gurchiek says "thank you" for reading her story and sharing it on social media. 

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