Last year, when we had our third baby, the nurses at the maternity ward were fantastic. They checked on my new daughter and me routinely and always with a smile. When they saw how exhausted I was after a 20-hour delivery, they reminded me that they could take care of my daughter while I slept at night and that I needn’t feel guilty about it, especially with two more kids waiting for me at home. The night I finally took their advice was the best night of sleep I had had for several months. I knew my daughter was in good hands.
Some of those nurses never knew how grateful I was to them. We ended up leaving the hospital in such a hurry that I didn’t have a chance to thank them in person. Back home, with three kids to take care of, I just plain forgot to send them a thank you card. When I thought of it again a few weeks later, I remembered how wonderful they had been but I had already forgotten their names.
I felt ashamed and I still feel ashamed, but that made me realize something I should have realized long before. I write and talk and teach about what companies can do to make jobs better for their employees, yet I never thought seriously about how we, the customers, can make those jobs better. But we can.
Certainly we can make life worse for employees. Some of the retail employees I interviewed for my research—especially those who worked for companies that offered low-paying jobs with lousy benefits, too few hours, and unpredictable schedules, and whose jobs were designed in a way that didn’t allow them to do a good job—told me repeatedly what a pain customers could be. Some customers made extra work for the employees by messing up the stores, some complained too much, and some were plain rude and insulting. Inadvertently, we can also make life worse for employees by asking them to do things they either don’t know how to do (because they didn’t get the training) or don’t have the authority to do. Instead of being upset with the employee, who generally can’t do anything about it, we ought to let the company know we’re mad at them for designing people’s jobs so poorly that they can’t give us good service even when they want to.
But back to the subject of making people feel better. We’re always free to thank an employee when he or she deserves it—right on the spot and, for experiences like the one I had at the hospital, also with a letter to the employee and his or her manager. That asks a little bit of effort of us—first we have to make sure to get the employee’s name, then write the letter. But it’s a small effort and, I can tell you, it really feels good to do it.
It accomplishes some good, too. When we as customers express our gratitude to employees, it shows the employees that what they do matters. And that, according to the late social psychologist Richard Hackman, makes one’s job meaningful.
By expressing gratitude, we also provide employees with valuable feedback on their performance, which they may not get much of from their managers. Hackman argues that knowing that one is doing one’s work well and that it matters to other people increases both motivation and satisfaction. When people are satisfied with their jobs, they are also more effective. Effective employees produce better products or deliver better services, more productively and with fewer errors.
Recently, experiments by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino show that receiving expressions of gratitude makes people feel more socially valued and increases the likelihood that helpers would provide assistance again—and not just to the person who thanked them but to others as well.
And so our gratitude can circle around and end up benefiting us, too.
About a month ago, my husband and I had our fourth baby. I had the same great experience at the hospital. But this time, I wrote my thank you letter to the nurses to let them know how much their kindness, competence, and compassion mattered to me and my family. It felt as good to thank them as it had felt to be treated so well in the first place.