Pen and paper: the forgotten management tool
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: March 6 2011 22:12 | Last updated: March 6 2011 22:12
Last week I went out for a pizza with a man I hadn’t seen for a while. The bill was low; I picked it up. Two days later, a small, cream envelope arrived on my doormat. Inside was a folded piece of paper on which he had written a short note saying how much he had enjoyed the occasion.
This letter, which arrived in the same post as four items of junk mail and a credit card statement, pleased me beyond reason. I was almost moved to snatch up my pen and write a thank-you letter in return to thank him for his.
Handwritten thank-yous are so thoroughly effective as a way of making other people feel good, it is mad that no one writes them anymore. In the last year I think I’ve only written one – and that was to thank my mother-in-law for the ham she always sends at Christmas. Had she owned a computer, I don’t think I would have written any at all.
In the office, the handwritten thank-you is even more powerful – and even more underused. Every time an employee makes a special effort they are doing the equivalent of buying a pizza or giving a ham to their employer. But they don’t expect thanks for it – which is just as well, as they don’t generally get any.
They do sometimes get a blanket thank-you to everyone (“thanks to all our people for their unstinting dedication during 2010” etc, etc) but such broad and bland declarations of gratitude have no effect on morale at all. Very occasionally, bosses take it into their heads to spit out an individual thank-you face to face (which is nice but wears off quickly) or send one by e-mail (which is nicer as it lasts longer but is somewhat flat).
One man who knows the power of the thank-you note is Doug Conant, who has been running Campbell’s Soup for a decade. In a recent blog for Harvard Business Review he says that every day he spends time with an assistant combing the company for people deserving thanks and then writes them a letter. Over the past 10 years he has fired off 30,000 of them – more than 10 each day.
My first thought on reading this is that the man is a genius.
My second thought was that he is an idiot to have revealed his secret, and thus devalue his currency. Who wants to treasure a note of thanks when they know there are 29,999 others in circulation?
Yet as I read the many gushing comments posted online by his employees, I saw I was quite wrong. The handwritten thank-you seems to be a currency that holds its value. Each letter, by definition, is written individually, so it doesn’t matter how many others there are. And once received, it can be kept in a drawer for reading until it falls to pieces.
The thank-you letter is not only incredibly effective, it costs nothing and has no nasty side effects. It doesn’t demotivate others – unless the recipients have the poor taste to frame their letters and stick them up above their desks. All in all, the ratio of effort in writing letters (very low) to pleasure on receiving them (extraordinarily high) must make this the most remarkable motivational technique there is.
Readers of the blog seem to agree: “Doug, What an inspiring post! The positive energy in written notes is healing in the workplace. Positive, genuine feedback is uplifting to our human wholeness. Thanks for sharing!” writes one.
But if these notes are so uplifting to our human wholeness, why is Mr Conant so unusual in writing any?
There seem to be three reasons. First, chief executives think their own contribution is more valuable than that of others, and as no one ever writes them thank-you letters they don’t write any themselves. Second, they aren’t close enough to the business to know who deserves thanks, and third, they have forgotten the strange human truth that almost everyone would do almost anything in return for a simple pat on the back.
On the rare occasion when they want to say thanks, they probably don’t pick up a pen because they have forgotten how to hold one or think it is going to take too long.
I’ve just put this to the test. Admittedly the start was slow as I had to rummage round in the stationery cupboard to get the right kit. But after that there was no stopping me. I took the lid off the pen and wrote: “Lucy, what an inspired column! Great positive energy! Thanks for sharing.” I put it in an envelope and wrote my name on the front. My handwriting is jagged from disuse, but still readable. Total time taken: 55 seconds.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.