I’m often asked how to thank a boss or a team leader for their leadership. It’s simple and easy, if you follow the right steps.
It’s also fraught with peril. Do it wrong, and you can come across as an ass-kisser or a suck-up — or worse, as if you somehow think your boss works for you, and you’re patting him on the head.
Always start by writing out your thanks. Once you get good, you can deliver thanks verbally — but master the form by writing it out and taking the time needed to follow these steps. Writing it gives you time to get the thoughts and words aligned with each other — and to be sure you’ve done it right.
Do Bosses need Thanks?
Absolutely. The right kind of thanks are good for a boss, because a boss is always — like every other human — processing inputs from the outside world. That includes inputs from subordinates. Whether a person is a boss, a teacher, or filling some other role, they are going to be (consciously or subconsciously) aware of how others — including subordinates — are responding to them.
Here’s an example of how a group of subordinates — students — tapped into this existing feedback loop and affected the behavior of their leader. A psychology class colluded to conduct an experiment: they agreed among themselves that, for one day, they would behave in the following way to their professor. When he was on the left side of the room the class would all sit up straight, take notes, and look at him; when he was on the right, they would slouch, all but dozing in their seats, staring at the walls or the clock, taking no notes. By the end of the hour, his shoulder was pinned to the left wall.
We all seek feedback from our environment, even when we aren’t aware of it. Give your boss positive, appropriate appreciation.
Opportunities to Thank your Boss
Here is where, when and how to thank your boss.
Where: I like to mail thank-you notes. This lets the recipient read it and react to it without an audience. A second place is during your scheduled one-on-one meeting or professional update meeting. A third location could be at certain sorts of office party, particularly celebrations.
How: A true thank-you note is much more meaningful on paper rather than in an e-mail. Use a business style thank-you card (like this), or a half-sheet of 60# parchment paper (like this). When using parchment paper, I cut normal sheets in half to make 8.5-by-5.5-inch sheets. They fit perfectly into a standard #6 3/4 envelope. The modest size allows for a brief and sincere message to fill the page.
Paper thank-you notes should be hand-written. Use a good quality pen that doesn’t smudge or smear — never pencil.
When: Finally, here are some ideas for when to thank your boss.
When you or your team reach a milestone — including the end of a quarter or a year, a work anniversary, or one of the work-specific milestones below — it’s appropriate to reflect on where you’ve come from and how you’ve performed. That reflection can include your thoughts about the role your boss played.
When you get a promotion, don’t thank them for the promotion. You didn’t get the promotion as a favor. If your boss is any good, they promoted you because they think you can do the new job well, which is their way of doing the company a favor. Instead, thank them for either the help they gave you to be deserving of it (by growing your skills or by showing faith in you or by giving you opportunities), or thank them for the future opportunity that the promotion represents.
Example: “Dear Fred – I’m honored by the confidence you’re showing in me by naming me Western Region VP. Over the past week I’ve thought a lot about this new role and what I’ll need to do to shine. My confidence is high because of the time you’ve spent encouraging me in good management practices — and for leading by example. You’ve helped me reach far higher than I once thought I could. Thanks. -Jim”
Completion of a Project or Goal
When you or your team complete a project, it’s the team’s victory. Don’t thank the boss for the victory, or even for “leading us to” victory. Instead, pick out the things the boss did right, especially with helping your non-visible state like confidence, motivation, focus, frustration level, etc. Even a boss who also did things wrong (and we all do) will benefit from having their better actions acknowledged.
Example: “Dear Fred – Now that we have finished the XYZ Project, I wanted to acknowledge all the help you gave me during the Build phase. As you recall, several times I found myself straining to understand the specs, and each time you gave me all the time I needed. You showed a lot of patience. I know you contributed both to my ability to finish on time, and also to my morale. Without your patience, I’d have really struggled. Now I feel I’m a much stronger coder, because of all the time you invested in me. Thanks. -Jim”
Failure of a Goal
Most folks want to gloss over failures. Yet they are some of the most powerful learning and growth opportunities. If your boss was really good, then they will have treated errors, failures, and problems as learning opportunities. They’ll have avoided the temptation to blame people and will instead have focused on identifying and fixing systemic problems. When they do that, it’s something for which to thank them.
What is Leadership?
Leadership consists of several elements:
- Inspiring people to bring their discretionary energy to a task
- Connecting the local and immediate with the remote and long term
- Growing people to actualize more of their potential
Select just one of these as the focus for your thank-you.
What does that feel like on your end? Does your boss energize and inspire you — or does your work inspire you, and your boss cleverly stays out of the way? Does your boss help you see beyond the day-to-day, and connect sometimes difficult or drudge work with a loftier and more meaningful vision? Have you grown in your job, and are now doing things that a year ago you didn’t think you could?
Each of those elements is worth thanking a boss for.
How to Write the Note
Your note can use two, three, or all four of these steps. If you’re not confident about the later steps, just use the first two — it’ll be great.
Step One, Physical Details
Always start with a sentence or two that describe a physical action or experience — something that could be captured on video. Your boss’ motives or emotions cannot be videotaped, but physical actions — like staying late, talking, meeting, answering, listening — can.
Example: “Dear Fred – Over the past year you have several times given me extremely specific guidance on my work. Most recently, the Monday before last you sat down and spent 30 minutes showing me how to manage my email using GTD.”
Why to do it: This step indicates you have something specific to thank them for — therefore you’re not making up something vague to manipulate them.
Step Two, Impact on Me
Next you tell the recipient how much impact their action had on you personally. If you can report a measurable number, do so. You can — and should — also report things that only you have access to, like your mood or your attitude or your motivation level.
Example: “Now I’m saving three hours a week and I’m not dropping the ball on tracking what other people owe me.”
Why to do it: Everybody wants to change the world around them for the better. This sentence shows your boss the positive impact they had on you.
You can stop here and your thank-you note is already quite good.
Step Three, Character Trait
Next you can name the positive character trait (or optionally the motive) the boss is showing through their actions. You’re letting the boss see how you see them — through your eyes.
Example: “It’s great to have a boss who cares enough about my work to help me improve.”
Why do it: Everybody wants to know how others see them. By giving their actions a name or motive, you do exactly that.
Step Four, Predict the Future
Finally, if you want to add this section — predict the future. How will the short term impact they had on you, and their character trait, affect you over the long term?
Example: “I’m looking forward to continuing to grow.” Or, “I know we’re going to have a great year next year, because of your leadership.”
Why do it: It’s often hard to see how today’s actions affect tomorrow. Offering your own version of the future gives the recipient a chance to imagine — and thus start to create — that future. This is very powerful.
No Suck-ups; No Head Pats
When thanking your boss, beware of the two biggest traps. One is the suck-up (your motive), and the other is the head-pat (your status).
If you write a thank-you note and it comes across — to the boss, to your coworker, to anybody — as if you are motivated by a desire to manipulate the boss, you might as well get a tattoo on your forehead reading “I’m a brown-nosing suck-up. Don’t trust me.” While your real motives are probably pure, you must also take responsibility for the impression you leave.
NOTE: Your goal isn’t to lavish unconditional affection on the boss, as if you were a puppy.
If you write a thank-you note and it comes across — again, to any relevant party, and especially to your boss or the boss’ boss — as if you thought you were the judge of all leadership, condescending to toss a bone to a lesser mortal… that is a CLM, a career limiting move. To avoid this, don’t evaluate the boss’ behavior against standards of good or bad. (Never say “You did a great job…” to your boss. That’s a great thing to say to a subordinate, whose work you should evaluate.)
Congratulations. You’re ready to thank your boss.
Don’t stop there — be sure to also show your honest appreciation to coworkers, subordinates, friends, and family members using the other guidance on How to Thank Someone.