A Note for Strong Leadership

Author: 
Paul Nolan

The Motley Fool, an online financial and investment advice company, decided quickly in early March to close its Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters and have all employees work remotely. Lee Burbage, a human resources lead, says the company is fortunate to able to operate virtually, so the downside of doing so is minimal.

Still, his HR team was concerned about its hundreds of employees missing the strong company culture that the Motley Fool works hard to infuse at its corporate HQ. To counter that, Burbage’s team split up duties to write and mail personal notes to every employee – what he called “a handwritten hug.”

“We thought that was a good out-of-the-normal-cycle way to contact employees that really just said, ‘We’re cheering for you. Thank you for being who you are. We’re going to get through this together,’ ” Burbage said in a company-produced podcast.

Health experts say Burbage’s instincts were on target. In a study of a new treatment for those who attempted suicide, the group who received three therapy sessions followed by two years of receiving personalized letters had an approximately 80% reduced risk of a repeat suicide attempt than the group that did not receive letters.

In the COVID-19 era, snail mail has played an important role in keeping the spirits of otherwise isolated individuals upbeat. “[Letters] help provide social support, even if you can’t be there with your friend or family member, holding their hand and being by their side,” Amanda Spray, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, told The Washington Post.

Managers may be uncertain about what to say when writing letters to employees, but health professionals say the act of writing is as important as what’s written. Writing a personal note on a carefully chosen card or stationary “requires a kind of deliberation that is so lacking in our time of fast-paced messaging and media,” Psychiatrist Jena Lee told the Post. “When you receive a handwritten letter, you reflexively start imagining the author sitting down and reflecting, thinking about you. . . . That’s why it’s so very effective at showing someone does care about you.”

Being personal and sincere will get you a lot further than searching for the perfect thing to say. She advises note writers to focus on what they appreciate about the recipient before they begin writing and to be future-oriented. “Sometimes, we get so distracted trying to find the right things to say, we don’t even realize that we sacrifice being absolutely genuine.”