If you’re grateful but don’t take the time to tell anyone, does it count? Maybe, but it’s a bit like clapping with one hand. You know you’re doing it, but does anyone else? Probably not. When shown appropriately, gratitude has tremendous power. At a minimum, it will keep you from appearing like an ungrateful and uncouth toad. On the other end of the spectrum, well-expressed thanks can open doors, solidify relationships, and change careers. The key to giving and getting with gratitude is knowing who to thank, when to thank them, and how to do it.

Who to thank

Thank up; thank down; thank out; and thank around.

Thank up. When bosses take the time to support you, provide you with an opportunity, or include you in something to which you’re not usually privy—thank them. Chances are, the next time they are deciding to whom they will extend an invitation, your name will appear higher on the list than it might have had you failed to recognize an earlier kindness.

Thank down. Maybe your team stayed late to finish a project. Perchance someone put forth extra effort to create a presentation. Perhaps an employee who has had a hard time meeting expectations finally does so. If you want those types of activities to continue to occur on any kind of regular basis, you need to recognize them.

Thank out. Customers, colleagues, and suppliers will support you if they feel you acknowledge their efforts. If you want to grow and build your network and workplace support system, those are the people you must cultivate. Doesn’t it make sense to nurture the relationships you have with them?

Thank around. Do you take the time to thank your office’s cleaning staff? Have you done anything to appreciate the cafeteria’s cashier? How about the security guard? A lot of people forget those individuals, and they shouldn’t. After all, chances are nobody would miss the CEO if he or she were absent for few days. Try that with the janitorial staff—not a pretty thought.

When to thank

The world would be a kinder and gentler place if people displayed more grace. Can you imagine how your workplace would function if everyone expressed sincere gratitude at least once an hour? Motivated, appreciated, and valued are some possibilities that come to mind. When you think about it, once an hour may be a bit much at first, but it is not a bad goal to work toward. And as with most activities, the more you do it, the easier it will become. But be warned: you must choose well. Recognizing people inappropriately is worse than not recognizing them at all.

For example, ask any kid how much a certificate, award, or trophy received for some trivial activity meant to him. If you don’t already know, the answer is a whole lot of “zero.” Kids are not stupid, and neither are the big people they turn into.

Gratitude should feel real and be relevant. If either one of those elements is missing, your “thank you” will most likely seem hollow.

How to thank

The words “thank you” are an adequate choice for acknowledging common courtesies shown to you. However, when people go beyond the basics, your recognition should as well. By following a few simple guidelines, you can quickly and easily step up your gratitude game.

Get specific. Focus on a detail, and your “thank you” will mean more. For instance, “The lemon muffins you made and brought into the office today were some of the best I’ve ever had. The glaze was amazing. You were so thoughtful to share them with us.” That’s a whole lot better than “Thanks for the muffins.”

Get personal. Share with others how what they’ve done meant something to you, and your thanks will both seem and be more sincere. With a little thought, you can connect feelings to the most mundane topics. For example, “John, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed and appreciated your presentation this afternoon. I’ve struggled with using PowerPoint animations and never been able to get them to look professional. I learned a lot from watching what you did. You have real talent.”

Great creative. Ironically, the phrase “thank you” hinders most people’s ability to express gratitude effectively. Avoid using the phrase at the start of your sentences, and you’ll find you are more imaginative. For instance, “Thank you for allowing me to attend today’s meeting. I appreciate the opportunity to be included in the decision-making process.” That’s okay, but consider the following: “I learned a lot about the decision-making process at this meeting. I never understood how the committee system worked until today. It was real eye opener. I appreciate you allowing me to attend.” Choice number two is stronger and it doesn’t use the words “thank you.”

Get to your keyboard. Email is appropriate when a verbal “thank you” seems a bit inadequate or is not possible. Although you don’t want to fill people’s inboxes with unnecessary messages, recognize that for most folks, it is a pleasure to receive an occasional note of appreciation among the usual dreck. Start typing.

Get out your stationery. If you really want to show your thanks, think “old school.” These days, hand-written notes are few and far between, so when you take the time to craft one, it won’t go unnoticed. Write at least three sentences using your best penmanship, focus on a detail, and tell your recipients how what they’ve done for you has made a difference.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. www.businesstrainingworks.com