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Upping Your Gratitude Game: A Primer for Chairs

Leadership and Management

Upping Your Gratitude Game: A Primer for Chairs

A former department head of mine closed many of their emails with “Thanks for all you do.” It was nice the first time I read it. The second and third time, not so much. I found myself wondering what they meant. Did they know about everything I do? I was pretty sure they didn’t. So what specifically were they thanking me for? Was this sentence part of a signature file, or was it specific to our communication that day? The more frequently I read that sentence without any details associated with it, the less it meant to me. Feelings of cynicism arose because the lack of specificity made me think they did not care what I did. This one-size-fits-all “thanks” was more than ineffective.

Some time ago, I had an aha moment that reshaped how I thank people. One Sunday after church, I approached the service associate to tell them how much I liked the way they facilitated the service. They paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “What did you like about it?” I knew what I liked about it. I just hadn’t said it. So I described three specific things they had done and said why I thought these were especially effective. They then shared with me that they had been working to improve a particular aspect I mentioned and said my acknowledgement was helpful in giving them feedback on their success. This approach to thanking someone seems to be effective for several reasons I will explore.

In what follows, I invite you to up your skills in expressing gratitude and acknowledging people. I will discuss how you can thank people and why you would want to do it one way as opposed to another.

The formula for thanking someone can follow the same one you might use for giving praise. It should be timely, specific, and positive. The communicative act resembles the formula you use for giving negative feedback without the request for behavioral change. You should describe what the person did and how it affects you or the constituency you both care about. As you read the following examples, notice how thanking someone involves acknowledging specifics of what they did while relating the positive action to the values and mission of your unit.

On Monday morning you might say to a faculty member, “I saw that we had 30 high school teachers participate in the pedagogy workshop you led on Saturday. During lunch with them, I noticed that many were already discussing how they will implement the proficiency-oriented instructional practices you presented. I believe this will lead to more students entering our programs with an understanding of their proficiency level. I expect that this will boost our efforts to place incoming students properly according to their learning in high school. I want to thank you for helping to strengthen our programs this way.”

Other expressions of gratitude and acknowledgement may be shorter. For example, “I really liked your social media post about yesterday’s club event. You were especially skillful in communicating in just a few words and images how our students learn about culture and have fun with friends in the extracurricular events you organize. This really helps promote the quality programming we offer. Thank you.”

In addition to being timely, specific, and positive when you thank someone, consider these additional tips. Don’t overpraise. Words like “great” or “awesome” are meaningless if you don’t say why. Be genuine in your communication: Slow down and make good eye contact. Speak at a tempo that lets your words sink in for the person to whom you are speaking. Watch for their reaction. You may want to modify what you say according to how they react, expanding on a certain point, for example. The value you deliver in thanking them is not just in the words that transmit meaning. It is also in their emotional experience of being seen and acknowledged for a unique contribution. Create the space for this emotional experience to occur. It will help cement the connection between their praiseworthy action and their positive feeling about it and about you.

Your intention to acknowledge people and thank them creates an opportunity for you to reflect. Try to be consistent and fair in expressing thanks to all the people you work with: faculty, staff, custodians, deans, your department head peers, key contacts in other units, and so on. Give public acknowledgement to those whose work others may not see or adequately appreciate. Give some thought to your threshold for issuing thanks. Take mental or even written notes on whom you thank, how, and for what. You may find it hard to thank certain individuals. Use this as an opportunity to consider how you value or fail to value what they do. Try to put yourself in their shoes. How must they feel if they never hear thanks or praise from you?

Consider how your expressions of thanks fit into the mission and goals of your unit and into the developmental goals of any given individual. How do certain expression of thanks underscore what you are messaging in other contexts, for instance at faculty meetings or in annual evaluations? How does timely, specific, and positive praise motivate certain individuals?

Be intentional about how you communicate your gratitude and praise. Is it in spoken or written form? Written forms may be saved and shared, for good or for bad. Will you communicate in public or in private? If in public, how will others feel if they hear or overhear what you say? Is there a purpose to making it public or to asking someone to come to your office for a quiet moment of acknowledgement? What is the potential impact of the mode you choose?

Your expression of thanks can be a relationship-building moment. Notice in the example of my aha moment above that after I expressed my specific thanks, the recipient shared what they were working on. I had created the safe space of seeing and acknowledging, and they in turn were motivated to relate how they were attempting to develop. This was the starter for a conversation about the goals we share as members serving the organization.

Finally, are there high achievers in your unit whom you acknowledge and thank but the institution does not? You as department head may be in the unique position of being able to comprehend the positive impact of their contributions as well as the damage that failing to acknowledge these does. Use your position to try to affect positive change in the institution. Your high achievers deserve this, and you can be their advocate.

Now you have honed your tools for acknowledging the contributions of others. I believe you will find that your more effective thank-yous bring a great deal of good energy back to you. So don’t wait to start upping your gratitude game.

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching. In February 2023, she was placed on the Fulbright Specialist Roster for a period of three years. As a Fulbright Specialist serving a university abroad on a short-term consulting assignment, she will share her expertise in the areas of world languages program development and higher education administration.


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