The Lost Art of the Handwritten Note


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[The following article originally appeared in Carrier Management magazine.]

When it comes to crafting more engaging employee communications, one solution is literally in business leaders’ hands.

From supervisors of small teams to CEOs of large companies, organizational leaders face a common challenge:  how to communicate with staff in an authentic and influential way that helps motivate the right behaviors.

As it turns out, one of the most impactful tools for this purpose is also one of the most traditional (and often overlooked) – the simple handwritten note.

In an age where communication mediums are typically chosen for speed and efficiency (e.g., tapping out a quick text message or a 280-character tweet), a handwritten note of recognition or thanks might seem like an archaic instrument that has no place in today’s workplace.

However, the anachronistic nature of a handwritten note is precisely what makes it stand out from the cacophony of conventional workplace communications.  For a variety of reasons, a handwritten message of commendation can be incredibly engaging to employees:

  • Crafting a handwritten note requires an investment of time – which immediately confers greater value on the message in the eyes of the recipient.
  • It requires thoughtfulness – there is no “backspace” available when composing a handwritten note. As such, the message feels especially deliberate and intentional.
  • It’s individualized – literally handcrafted by the author exclusively for the recipient, thereby projecting an impressive and uncommon degree of personalization.
  • It’s tangible – serving as a physical reminder of performance excellence that an individual can retain as a keepsake for a job well done.

Furthermore, the impact of these handwritten notes goes well beyond their intended recipients.  While these messages might seem like a private act of one-to-one communication, the fact is, they tend to get shared by those who receive them.

When employees receive a handwritten commendation from someone in the management ranks, they take pride in it and tend not to keep it a secret – posting the note in their workspace and calling over colleagues for a “you’re not going to believe this” show-and-tell session.

Indeed, the peer-to-peer sharing of these handwritten communications is one of their greatest benefits, because it helps to socialize the right workplace behaviors in a compelling and memorable way.

While these notes serve an individual purpose (recognizing a particular employee on a job well done), they have a much broader utility in terms of shaping behavioral norms throughout the organization.  (Even the mere act of sending a thank you note sends a signal to the staff about the importance of collegiality and gratitude.)

Frank Blake, the former CEO of Home Depot, is one prominent business leader who used handwritten notes to great effect.  When Blake assumed the top spot at the retailer, he inherited a company that was underperforming its competition, and a workforce that was weighed down by poor morale.

To recognize employees who were doing things right (and help restore morale), Blake took to writing notes to the deserving individuals.  He estimates that he sent over 25,000 of them to Home Depot employees during his seven years leading the retailer.  “I’d see the notes framed at the stores,” Blake told Inc. magazine in a 2017 interview.  “So I knew it mattered.”

His strategy paid off.  Due in part to his communication approach, Blake succeeded in creating an environment where the staff felt appreciated, where employees knew what “right” looked like, and where customers enjoyed the shopping experience.  He’s widely credited with turning Home Depot around, as evidenced by the company’s stock performance during his tenure, which outpaced the S&P 500 by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

So, are you ready to employ this tool in your communications arsenal – and start putting big smiles on the faces of unsuspecting employees?  Here’s how to get started:

1.  Create a pipeline for praise.

Depending on the size of the organization you lead, you may need to put a structure in place in order to create a formal pipeline of candidates to be considered for this type of recognition.

In addition to worthy candidates that come to your attention during the normal course of business, other potential recognition leads could come from sources such as:  unsolicited customer commendations (for example, comments about a particular employee made on a satisfaction survey), management recommendations (which are particularly important if you head up a large organization with a broad span of control) or individual performance metrics (on a measure that’s universally viewed as meaningful and important to the organization).

2.  Allocate time to write the notes.

Drafting these handwritten notes is the kind of activity that easily gets subordinated to other seemingly more important or time-sensitive priorities.  If you don’t carve out time on your calendar to do it, then it will likely fall by the wayside and remain an aspirational task.  Designate a specific time each week when you’ll sit down and write these notes.

3.  Personalize the message.

To maximize the impact of your note, make sure it is composed of more than just a generic phrase or two.  What helps make these communications authentic (and inspiring) is their personalization – not just that they’re handwritten or addressed by name, but also that they reflect the author’s understanding and appreciation of what the employee has accomplished.

That personalization can be achieved in a variety of ways.  If, for example, the trigger for the recognition was a customer commendation or survey response, then just by using that document as the “note paper,” the author can demonstrate a grasp of why the recipient has earned recognition.

Alternatively, if you’re using an actual note card or stationery for the message, be sure to clearly describe what it is that the employee did to deserve such recognition.

Articulating the “why” behind the recognition is important, as that helps turn the message into more than just an individual commendation.  It also becomes a cue for the broader workforce regarding the types of behaviors that are desired and rewarded.

4.  Send the communication.

This final step, actually sending out the handwritten notes, would seem to require no further explanation.  However, one twist to consider is mailing the notes to recipients’ home addresses, as opposed to delivering them via interoffice mail.

For employees with families or significant others, receiving a handwritten note of recognition from a company executive at their home creates an entirely different dynamic.

Imagine how it would make an employee feel, opening up that note of praise alongside their spouse and children.  You’re essentially making a hero out of that individual, in front of their loved ones.  Just think of the pride that would create for an employee, and the loyalty it would cultivate towards their employer.

*          *          *

When it comes to engaging employees and inspiring excellence, sometimes the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact.  The handwritten note, a relic of a bygone era, falls into that category.

If you want to recognize staff in a way they’ll never forget, and highlight behaviors that others should emulate, then start putting pen to paper – because the handwritten note deserves a place in your communication toolbox.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Picoult
As Founder of Watermark Consulting, Jon Picoult helps companies impress customers and inspire employees. An acclaimed keynote speaker, Jon’s been featured by dozens of media outlets, including The Wall St Journal and The New York Times. He’s worked with some of the world’s foremost brands, personally advising CEOs and executive teams.Learn more at or follow Jon on Twitter.


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