I think all of us are enormously grateful for computers, word processors, smartphones, iPads and all those other wonderful devices that make our lives so much less difficult (note that I did not say easier!) and tremendously increase our ability to communicate much faster and with ease. While not the topic of this article, I can’t help but to remind all of us that we can also ruin a career or a friendship with a simple keystroke! Yup, we can effectively reach out accurately, promptly and to whatever audience we care to address. However, there are times when the good old-fashioned use of a pen, paper and a postage stamp may be the most effective.
While some will disagree, I believe that it is an absolute fact that among the few victims of automation is the drastic loss of realistically personal communications. Certainly, we can send an email to a person and mark it “personal,” but the impact is far less impactful than the simple handwritten note. In my long career in multiple agencies, I have stumbled across a helpful leadership reality: A handwritten note from the boss is truly appreciated and long-remembered. A complimentary email is appreciated, but a handwritten personal note has a much longer and much greater positive impact.
A complimentary email is appreciated, but a handwritten personal note has a much longer and much greater positive impact.
Like most executives (hopefully!), I am the type of leader who has always looked for opportunities to acknowledge good work with appropriate levels of recognition, and to encourage my staff to do the same. When I first reached the executive level, I really went into “high gear” with my good intentions by having my secretary type (usually) appreciative accolades on my personal note cards and send them to the home addresses of the concerned employees. I reasoned that sending the note to the home would be a nice added touch.
Internally, my personal notes were stimulated by significant supervisory commendations that I became aware of and wanted to reinforce with a note from the “big boss” (me); always in support of and never instead of supervisory recognition. Externally, I had my secretary also send my personal notes to citizens and others outside of the department; in many instances, she knew my thought process and had notes prepared for my signature before I even raised the issues! This practice served me well.
Because of an encounter with an employee and his wife, I found that my good intentions could be further improved upon. At a departmental social function, one of my employees and his wife approached me to say hello and the employee thanked me for the “handwritten note” I had sent to him at his home, and his wife added that the note was still attached to the refrigerator door! What a great and powerful lesson for me. From that day forward and to the present time, my internal notes of special significance are handwritten and mailed to the homes of the concerned employees.
Several words of caution are appropriate. First, don’t send personal notes unless the incident or performance being commended was truly significant; don’t permit the impact of your words to be cheapened by excessive accolades. Secondly, be careful what you say, and write everything with the expectation that it may end up on the front page of a newspaper; commenting on the specifics of something badly controversial or to an employee who might be facing termination is not good. Finally, know enough about civil law and issues of defamation to recognize areas where you best not tread; you don’t need to nurture litigation. These words of caution are drawn from my extensive personal scar tissue.
I encourage everyone in every position, especially those in positions of responsibility, to invest a few bucks in some personal note cards, buy a few stamps and start sending out complimentary notes where appropriate. As years go on, the people who will comment on your kind actions will validate the wisdom of such a simple yet powerful practice.