The Power of Small Gestures

NOTE: This article has been modified and adapted for court leaders from an essay by the same title recently published in The Economist, May 26, 2022 Edition, regarding private sector bosses and managers. It reviews contemporary research about employee motivation and well-being when appreciation is offered by those in authority genuinely as opposed to when it is given in a rote, unauthentic way.

Small gestures of appreciation can have an outsized effect on employee satisfaction and motivation. The bad news, however, is that such deeds are not meant to be scaled-up in a routine or patterned way as they so often are by leaders and managers in both private and public organizations.

Several pieces of research have looked at the effect acts of thoughtfulness can have on staff. In one recent study by academics at King’s College London and Harvard Business School, social workers were randomly divided into two groups: members of one group got a letter of thanks from their manager, and members of the other got nothing. A month later, recipients of the letter reported feeling much more valued than their counterparts.

In a similar vein, a study in 2010 found that university fundraisers who were personally thanked for their work by a senior member of their leadership team made many more calls to ask alumni for donations in the week following this small act of recognition than they had in the week before. There was no statistically significant change for an unthanked control group.

Another study involved workers at a Coca-Cola facility in Madrid, some of whom had secretly been told to perform acts of kindness to a subset of their colleagues (i.e., bringing someone a drink, emailing them a note of thanks, etc.). Both givers and receivers of these acts reported feeling higher levels of job satisfaction; and the receivers ended up doing more favors for other colleagues, too.

Such lessons carry two lessons for court leaders. One is that recognition can have a meaningful impact on those who report to you. The other is that this impact is amplified if shows of appreciation are personal and unexpected. In our haste to act on the first lesson, plenty of courts completely forget the second.

Many courts run formal employee-recognition initiatives, from award programs to emailed “good job” congratulations to entire divisions or employee groups. Institutionalizing appreciation, however, misses the point completely. Automated birthday and work-anniversary congratulations are about as personal as a form letter.

The secret to showing appreciation is that sincerity matters. It should involve effort: a handwritten note is better than an email, which is better than an algorithm. It should feel personal, not part of a program cooked up by the human resources department. And it should be sufficiently rare to register as meaningful; thanking everybody for everything turns gratitude into a commodity. In other words, appreciation is not a big data project. Individual court leaders can harness the power of small gestures to make a real difference in those they lead. One of the best things courts can do is ensure their leaders, managers and supervisors are people who recognize the subtle but important potency of sincerity.