The Right Way to Express Gratitude

The Right Way to Express GratitudeBy: Allison McCarthy, MBA | amccarthy@barlowmccarthy.com

During a client’s physician leadership meeting, the hospital CEO expressed appreciation to them and their colleagues for “making the hospital volume so strong over the past few months.”

My initial reaction was “good for him” for giving those physicians that recognition – for there are so many that do not. But then I looked at the faces of these physician leaders and saw blank expressions.  No smiles, no nods – no reaction at all.  The CEO’s expression of gratitude didn’t seem to resonate. Why not?

Then I read a recent Harvard Business School article by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., titled “Stop Making Gratitude All About You.” Dr. Halvorson noted that a common mistake when expressing gratitude is in making it self-centered. What she argued is that gratitude only resonates when it is “other praising.”

For example, if this CEO had used one of the phrases below,

  • You and your colleagues have demonstrated how committed you are to this organization by…
  • Over the past few months, you have worked hard to…
  • You and your colleagues are to be applauded for…

rather than what Dr. Halvorson calls “self-benefit” expressions like,

  • The hospital volume has been strong over the past few months thanks to you and your colleagues…
  • Senior leadership has noticed the increase in hospital activity – thank you for that…
  • The organization is successful because we have such loyal physicians…

those facial expressions might have looked very different.

And it makes total sense – when you’re thanking someone for something, focus on them and not on you.  But it’s not easy.  Try it over the next few weeks.  Pay attention to the words that easily come to mind when expressing gratitude.  Like me, you’ll find that trying to be what Dr. Halvorson describes as “other-praising” isn’t as natural as you might hope.  It takes conscious effort to focus on what the other person did versus what you received.    

Doctors need to be acknowledged and appreciated.  It’s an important piece in engaging them as partners in care delivery.  But as Dr. Halvorson reminds us, how we express that gratitude will determine if the message is received as intended.  Recognition only really resonates when focused on them and not on us.

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  1. Michele Eckhardt

    Although it seems obvious that expressions of gratitude should be “other praising,” I suspect we all default to our own benefit rather than the effort of others. This is such a relevant message particularly as it impacts physician engagement & alignment!