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A charity fundraiser told me recently that it was a rule of thumb in philanthropic circles that you should thank donors seven times.

Apart from online references to "tradition," "common wisdom" and, inevitably, "Chinese custom," I've found no empirical research to support this magic number. Some experts on charitable giving have never heard of the idea; those who have are divided about whether it is even a useful maxim.

There is, however, plenty of research – much of which is revisited at this time of year – into whether gratitude improves behaviour. The short answer: it does, a lot. That makes it all the more perplexing that, in most workplaces, simple (and cheap) thank-yous are undervalued as motivational tools, while complex cash-based incentive packages abound.

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This is not to imply that bosses never say thanks. But they mix messages and often offer public displays of gratitude when it's too late – the valued employee is leaving.

Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft Corp.'s former Windows expert, is by most accounts an abrasive character; Steve Ballmer, the software group's head, is as hard-nosed as any chief executive. When the former quit unexpectedly this month, the latter wasted just 16 words saying how grateful he was for Mr Sinofsky's "many years of work" before getting back to promoting Windows products.

Rakesh Kapoor of Reckitt Benckiser dispatched his chief financial officer, Liz Doherty, in September, with a brief thank-you – before pointing out how their working styles were not well matched. (Perhaps the clue was in his use of the phrase "I want to thank Liz ..." – a construction that always suggests to me the unspoken addition " ... but I just can't bring myself to do so.")

For all I know, the unseen interaction between these corporate heavyweights before they parted ways was full of elaborate exchanges of gratitude. If it was, the research suggests it would have supercharged their contributions. In a version of the prisoner's dilemma game, psychologist David DeSteno and others found gratitude enhanced co-operative behaviour – not only between the thanker and the thanked, but between the recipient and third parties. Fellow academics Adam Grant and Francesca Gino suggest mere expressions of thanks make recipients feel valued and could be "sufficiently potent" to persuade them to redouble their efforts.

It is easy to come up with different ways of thanking work colleagues: from the boss's simple declaration of "good job" in the lift up to the office, to her e-mailed and handwritten notes of congratulation, up to mentions in the annual report or the chairman's speech. Why, then, do leaders not use such low-cost tools more often, and why do followers regard them with suspicion?

It must be in part because purveyors of the workplace thank-you so often pollute its positive impact with less palatable messages, inviting cynicism.

For guidance, a thank-you is not:

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  • A way of improving skills. Thanking an incompetent staff member for work only just up to standard may persuade him to work harder, but not better. That’s what training is for.
  • An alternative to money or promotion. Cash is certainly a poor substitute for gratitude, but the reverse is also true. Profuse thanks may work once in lieu of a bonus. By the third or fourth year, the motivational effect of the thank-you letter tends to wear off.
  • An apology. “Thank you for offering to cover for Joan (after I forgot she had asked for time off)”: wrong. “I’m sorry for leaving you in the lurch on Joan’s day off – but thanks for covering”: right.
  • An order, as in the hollow pre-gratitude of memos that begin: “Thanks in advance for coming in over the holiday period to complete the project.”

As other studies have shown, people tend to give far more weight to negative communications than to positive ones. That suggests employers need to dispense proportionately more gratitude to offset the harsher news they often have to transmit.

Even if these confused signals are straightened out, academics, fundraisers, executives and workers agree on one golden rule: thank-yous have to be sincere. Quality, in short, trumps quantity. Thanks so much for reading.

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