Making a habit of saying thanks

  Wynn Netherland • 2017-02-09

A co-worker once sent me an email I'll never forget. It was a simple thank you note, only a few sentences, but it had a big impact.

It was spontaneous. We typically treat thank you notes as social receipts. Someone gives us a gift or hosts us for dinner, and we express our appreciation with a small note. Thanks is often transactional.

When was the last time someone sincerely thanked you for your work outside of a performance review cycle or not immediately following some major accomplishment?

It was specific and personal. He highlighted my individual contributions to the team, even linking to specific pull requests and comments.

There was no hint of solicitation or expectation. We're trained to look for the fine print, even in email. There's always an angle.

A long lost colleague you haven't heard from in years suddenly reconnects — oh, by the way, they're looking for new career opportunities, can you help? (Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of email. You bet, happy to. What are you looking for?)

But that's what made this email even more remarkable. There was no "by the way", no embedded solicitation.

A habit of explicit gratitude

Reflecting on the impression his note made on me, I wanted to pay it forward. I wanted to get intentional about expressing gratitude to others in the organization.

Schedule spontaneity. From the recipient's point of view, I wanted them to feel the joy of receiving a note of thanks out of the blue. To make that happen consistently, I had to put it on my schedule. I began to set aside half an hour each week to send out thank you notes (long before Fallon I might add). Before long I started making an on deck list, an editorial calendar of sorts.

Develop a format, but be sincere. I wanted each note to be heartfelt, personal, and encouraging. After the first few, a format emerged:

Happy Monday!

Hey [name],

A Monday at GitHub is better than a Friday at most places, but it's still a Monday, amirite?

I just wanted to drop you a note and say I'm glad you're here. I love the way you [some ongoing impactful work] like you did here: [link to a recent instance]. We can always count on you to bring your [unique innate quality] to make the team better. Your work has an impact and it doesn't go unnoticed.

If I can ever be of any help or make your job easier, please don't hesitate to ask.


~ Wynn

Not everyone is as corny as me. Use your own voice, but make it personal. Since each note has an audience of one, it's OK to repeat the structure week-to-week as long as your content is specific. Otherwise you risk appearing insincere.

Observe and make notes. So how do you come up with specific things to include each week? Look up, look around. Get your eyes off your personal TODO list and take an interest in the work of your teammates. Some feedback should be immediate, but it's OK to squirrel away items for an email down the road. Inbox labels are a great way to flag something for a future thank you.

The payoff

As I hinted earlier, there was no ulterior motive. I wasn't sowing the seeds to reap favors down the road. But I have derived benefits from the habit.

I have less regret. Fewer people have left the organization without knowing how much I valued their work.

I have a greater appreciation for the diversity of skills on my team and in the organization.

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

VP of Engineering at Abstract, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.