On the Clock

The Art of Electronically Praising a Colleague

Emailing thanks can be fraught with political and competitive dynamics.

4 min read

It’s likely that, on more than one occasion, you’ve been included in a group email offering praise for your team’s recent achievement. First, you receive the initial missive, perhaps from your boss or even your boss’s boss. Then comes the avalanche of responses, in which colleagues express their own gratitude and attaboys. Fifteen distracting emails later, it finally all ends—and you can get back to work. “It just becomes silly,” says a senior marketing executive at a consumer packaged goods company who has experienced many of these congratulatory chains. “At some point you delete them all so they don’t clog up your inbox.”

Email communication has all sorts of complications, from the attempted joke that comes off a touch too snarky or a suggestion that’s interpreted as pedantic. But one of the trickiest problems is how much email has changed the dynamics of public praise, particularly when it comes to thanking your colleagues. Do the job right and you can solidify relationships; get it wrong and you seem like the office jerk. “When you’re praising someone, it may seem wonderful, but it also can be fraught with political and competitive dynamics,” says Kathy Robinson, who heads TurningPoint, a career coaching firm in Boston. “The issue is actually extremely complicated.”

“Thanking colleagues over email is a tricky art; get it wrong and you seem like the office jerk.” 

Handling email praise effectively goes beyond office reputations—it can also affect your workplace productivity. Research shows that in high-performing teams, the expression of positive feedback outweighs negative feedback by a ratio of 5.6 to 1. Low-performing teams have a ratio of .36 to 1. And those perceptions can make the difference between a colleague implementing your idea immediately or ignoring it. What’s more, other studies show that when people are reminded of their good work, they have more creativity and less stress. With that mind, here are questions to consider before sending or replying to that “Kudos!”-titled email.

Praise or thanks?

While the two words may seem interchangeable, career advisors say there’s a subtle but important difference. “Workplaces have an unspoken cultural norm that praise comes from the top, while thanks can go sideways,” says Robinson. “If you say ‘great job’ to somebody, it implies you’re the judge and jury.” That means evaluating which category your message falls into; if your assessment is a thank you, go ahead and email. Otherwise, consider skipping the missive or rethinking the wording.  

If the praise or thanks comes directly to you, there’s a choice. If it’s from your boss and was sent directly to you, then by all means respond. If the message was sent to an entire team, best not to reply all because it may seem like you’re trying to curry favor. And for a message sent from a team member to the whole group, you can respond either to everyone or just the sender. But do so with a “Let’s go for a drink after work to celebrate” attitude instead of one that could be interpreted as a pat on the head.

The dreaded CC

CC-ing, or carbon copying, others is like a loaded gun; depending on whom you copy, you can be purposefully—or unwittingly—engaging in a power play that gives you recognition or perhaps shines it elsewhere. Robinson points to a managing director of a consulting firm who initiated a project that was then taken over by another group. When it was completed, a boss two levels above her sent out an email commending the team for their work, sans her name. Her solution: She replied all on the email with her own thank you to the team, which subtly reminded everyone of her contribution.

While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about who to include in your email or whether to reply, one deciding factor is your workplace culture. “It depends how formal and hierarchical it is,” says the director of a New York City nonprofit. “You follow the pattern.” That’s particularly true if you work in a praise-starved environment; if you jump in on a rare email from your boss praising a colleague, you could come off as trying to horn in on the moment. The cultural appropriateness also extends to your wording. In some workplaces—say, a hip tech start-up—attaching a GIF might be perfectly acceptable; in a stuffy bank, not so much.

Beware of being fake

It may seem obvious, but hitting the right note is all about seeming genuine. To pull that off, career coaches say it’s best to be specific. “If you say, ‘thank you for your help,’ it seems gratuitous,” says Susan Peppercorn, who heads the coaching firm Positive Workplace Partners in Boston. “If you say, ‘thank you for helping the team by being such a positive influence at our staff meetings,’ that’s much better.” But remember to keep it concise and, when in doubt, remember a mantra of the etiquette guru herself, Emily Post: Sincerity wins.