How to thank your employees in 5 simple, effective ways

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

"The only way to motivate people is with money."

This is the exact wrong mindset to have as a leader, but too many people think that's the only way to thank your employees.  There's a better way, especially this time of year.

Whether you just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, or are getting ready for any of the major holidays in approaching like Christmas or Hanukah, it's a good time to give thanks for your team members that make all the difference for you.

While you may do a performance review (or compensation review) around this time, they usually focus on feedback and pay, not praise and gratitude.

How to thank your employees - be like franklin d roosevelt and recognize there's more than money

Motivation is deeper than money.

With budgets tight and fears of a recession common, you may not be able to deliver on hopes for a great bonus or awesome raise. And even if you have those things at your disposal for your team, you shouldn't think of it as the only way to motivate your employees.

As Dan Pink's famous TED talk discusses, a myriad of studies show that money is not the best motivator:

"If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That's how business works. But that's not happening here...[a study by Sam Glucksberg at Princeton University showed] money does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.

...This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators -- if you do this, then you get that -- work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored."

If you want to really motivate your team, you need to think beyond money. Not just to save money, but because it will help you dig into deeper, better forms of motivation.

Today, we look at 5 ways you can show gratitude and how much you value your team without breaking the bank.

You may be surprised how effective these are, and how little time, effort, and money they require.

How to thank your employees, and motivate them, without spending a lot of money

Who are your unsung heroes you can't do without? Who would you and your team members be disappointed to see leave your team or company?  Thank them. Make them feel valued and appreciated, before it's too late.

Some of your best people can have the biggest doubts, too. Or put simply: Imposter syndrome is real.

Often, your best people will not realize how much you value them, unless you make a habit of letting them know.

Things like regular, specific praise can have a major impact.  When you add to that occasional, thoughtful ways to give thanks, you ensure your team always knows where you stand with them, while tapping into better ways to motivate them.

Here's 5 ways to thank your employees to get you started:

1) A personal, hand written note

Never underestimate the power of a few kind words.

While you can always shoot off a note in chat or over email, take a moment when it really matters to write it by hand.

To this day I still have a number of hand-written notes I've received throughout my career:

how to thank your employees - personal notes work
A warm note can help you get through a tough day.

There's something more meaningful about these notes, and because they're physical, I can hold onto them. The same thing you'd read in an email feels 10 times more impactful when it's in an envelope you open and read.  And research backs up this feeling.

Study: A note from a manager trumps money and gift cards

In a study in a real work environment by renowned behavioral economist Dan Ariely, he found that a compliment from your manager was better than money:

"Workers were given either a $30 bonus, a pizza voucher, or a complimentary text message from the boss at the end of the first workday of the week as an incentive to meet targets. (A separate control group received nothing.)

Pizza, interestingly, was the best motivator on the first day, but over the course of a week the compliment had the best overall effect, even better than the cash. "

Your words as a manager mean a lot to your employees. Taking the time to thank your employees can go a long way and costs you little time or effort.

Of course, what you write in the note matters a lot, too. Put some thought into it.

What do you appreciate most about them? Are there challenges they overcame you want to recognize? What would you like to see more of?

Addressing these things is the difference between a note being cherished and motivating, or dumped in the trash and resented.

A great, handwritten note is one of the best ways to thank your employees, and costs you nothing.

2) A thoughtful gift showing you understand them

What is your team member passionate about? What do they *love* inside or outside work?  What means the world to them? Buying a small, thoughtful gift to thank your employees can make all the difference.

A few examples I've seen work incredibly well:

  1. Buying a $7 figurine of a team member's favorite basketball player.
    how to thank your employees - give them a thoughtful inexpensive gift
    I've shared this story before. For just $7 + shipping I made the day of my coworker because I took the time to get to know him and what he loved. When I wanted to thank him, I knew just how to do it. It's still on his desk today.
  • Purchasing a few books on a subject they're interested in learning about.
    how to thank your employees - buy them a book!When you find an employee that's hungry to learn, feed them! One of the best, and least expensive ways to do so is to buy them a great book or two in the area they want to learn about. If you're not sure what book to get them, ask someone who is an expert in that area. Buying a book as a gift is only as good as the quality of the book you pick.
  • Get them equipment that helps them do their job better, or they will personally enjoy.
    how to thank your employees - buy them equipmentA friend and mentor of mine was inspired by our past posts about simple gifts for your team. He replaced budget he had for a bonus with a MacBook that the engineer would really appreciate. As the message above shows, it worked perfectly.

The only limit to a great gift is your creativity.

Get the right gift for the right person.

Unfortunately, if you get them a gift they don't care about, they might resent you; it tells them you don't understand them.

This is one of many reasons building rapport with your employees matters so much. All those little conversations throughout the year learning about them and what drives them pays off when you can easily think of the perfect gift for each person you want to recognize.

If you're at the end of the year and realize you can't do this, because you don't know your team well, start here:

3) Team Swag

You spend a lot of time at work. Whether you're working to hit a number, ship a feature, or reach a team goal, there's a rush of excitement (or relief) when you complete it.

These moments are fleeting. A few days or a week later, it's business as usual driving for the next big goal.

Save these moments by commemorating them. A piece of team swag can symbolize that moment for years to come. It becomes a signal of all the hard work they put in, and the results they helped create.

A little swag goes a long way.

Linkedin famously has gotten shirts for major releases and other moments for years. These have become collectors items as the company has grown from a small startup to a major company.  This post by a former employee highlights that feeling well, as does this gif below showing some of those many shirts.

how to thank your employees - t shirts like Linkedin does can help
A sampling of Linkedin shirts an employee collected

This is one of those easy ideas hiding in plain sight to thank your employees. Good t-shirts can be printed even in small runs for less than $30 a shirt.

As we learned from Dan Ariely's study earlier, you'll get a much stronger response from your team with thoughtfulness than such a trivial amount as a bonus, or a lame gift card to Chili's.

Even better, if you don't have creative skills yourself, involving your team in the design can be a great way to bring everyone together, while making sure it's something people will want to wear.

There are a lot of other benefits to buying swag like this as Akshay Kothari, head of Linkedin India, and Adam Nash, CEO of Wealthfront cover well in their posts.  You may be surprised the positive effect a little company-branded swag can have on your employees. Tying them to an occasion to give thanks or celebrate only makes them more meaningful.

4) Write them a recommendation

A good recommendation has all the elements of the perfect gift from a manager: specifics on why you appreciate them, genuine good will, and no cost to you.

But wait, won't this make them leave? Hardly. By appreciating them you let them know exactly where they stand. This can actually help them want to stay.

Let your people know how you feel before they leave.

In Dale Carnegie's leadership classic, "How to Win Friends & Influence People” he shares a story of a restaurant owner nearly losing a great employee:

"This woman had been in his employ for five years and was a vital link between M. Marais and his staff of twenty-one people. He was shocked to receive a registered letter from her advising him of her resignation.

…I was under the impression that I had been fair to her and receptive to her needs…I probably had taken her too much for granted and maybe was even more demanding of her than other employees.

…I took her aside and said, "Paulette, you must understand that I cannot accept your resignation. You mean a great deal to me and to this company, and you are as important to the success of this restaurant as I am.” I repeated this in front of the entire staff.

Paulette withdrew her resignation, and today I can rely on her as never before. I frequently reinforce this by expressing my appreciation for what she does and showing her how important she is to me and to the restaurant.”

A recommendation is a great way to show your appreciation and thank your employees in a way you normally don't get a chance to.

Recommendations are powerful.

Want to know a simple Linkedin hack to know when a person left a company? Look at the dates of their recommendations. If there's a bunch all within a week or so, you know they were likely laid off or left then.

Rather than waiting until they leave to tell them where they stand, write it now.

how to thank your employees - give them a recommendation
They stayed for more than a year after I wrote this.

If you're in an industry where Linkedin is the de-facto resume, then surprise them with a recommendation there. Otherwise, formally writing a recommendation and giving them a PDF copy of it can have the same effect.

Speaking with a friend the other day who is hiring, they reminded me how powerful recommendations are. A person who applied for their opening had 5 letters of recommendation they sent along with their resume & cover letter. No one else had even one. Not surprisingly, they moved to the top of the stack.

Giving an honest, appreciative recommendation helps your team member know how much you value them. It also gives them the gift of help for the rest of their career; it helps them advance and land new jobs that fit their abilities.

That kind of manager karma will carry you far, and build a reputation as a leader that cares about their team.

5) Make time to talk about their career

Here at Lighthouse we've looked at a ton of the latest workplace research and analysis. Study after study after study shows the same thing: employees want growth and development at work, and they're not getting it.

how to thank your employees - give them the gift of growth like pwc shows matters
This is 1 of 5 studies from places like Deloitte, Gallup, and PwC with similar findings

If you want to make a team member's day, tell them you want to take some time to talk about their career.

As a manager, you're in the perfect position to help them see opportunities in your company and beyond.

You know their strengths and weaknesses. You can help them network to people in the organization that can help where you may not be able to. And you have the resources, decision making power, and access to modest budget to help.

Nothing makes your team happier at work.

Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer wanted to answer a simple, yet critical question: What makes people happiest at work?  The answer surprised them:

how to thank your employees - help them make progress on their careers

Making progress in their careers is an essential part of what Amabile calls, "meaningful work."  There's few things you can do better to thank your employees than invest in their growth.

There's no time like the present.

The end of the year is the perfect time to start talking about their career.  You are already likely reflecting on the year that was in a performance review now or soon.  They're also about to see family who are going to ask, "How's work?” about 37,000 times.

All that reflection will lead to them thinking hard about their career and where they're at today.

Will they feel like they're making progress on the things that are most important to them? Or will they feel bored and stuck in the mud?

All those studies we talked about show their career growth and development is what's most important to them, and there's a good chance they're not getting what they hoped for currently. This is an opportunity for you to stand out above other managers.

There are few ways to better thank your employees than giving them the gift of career growth. The time to start is now.

Not sure where to begin in helping them grow? Here's a few tips:

  1. Use your 1 on 1s to talk about their career: This ensures you have a way to *keep making progress* together. To get the most results of it, check our 1-1 template.
  2. Be prepared for the meeting: Start their career conversation using one of these approaches.
  3. Avoid excuses: There's a ton you can do grow them even without promoting anyone. Here's how.

Being a manager isn't easy.

Being a manager can be a thankless job. You're pressured to drive results with often limited guidance and support. Companies rarely measure and reward you for being a good manager.

Instead, your reward for being a great manager is how your team performs and works hard for you. By showing you care about them, and investing in their future, you'll not only stand out, but be building up the good will that makes them want to work for you and refer their friends to you for years to come.

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

Read more

Browse topics

Follow us:

Note: We do not accept guest posts, so please do not email us.

Get Your Free 1 on 1 ebook

Get Your Free 1 on 1 ebook

Want to Level up Your Leadership Skills?

Learn how great leaders use their 1 on 1s to bring out their teams best with for our FREE 📗 e-book: “10 Steps To Having Amazing 1 on 1s With Your Team”

Plus: Join 23,000+ managers learning weekly:

Share via
Copy link