On Expressing Gratitude in Professional Relationships

gratitude scrabble tiles
Gratitude by Kate Ware under CC BY 2.0.

The Monday after the 2017 MLA convention in Philadelphia, I sat down on my sofa and composed twenty-five individual thank-you e-mails. I sent one to everyone who had participated in a Connected Academics event at the convention—and we had a lot of events.

Writing the twenty-five notes took me the entire day, and at times my attention and my energy flagged. I pushed through because it was important to me that everyone who had done something for us felt acknowledged and appreciated. Most of the people we invited to the convention work outside the academy; they took time from their busy lives to travel to Philly and would not otherwise have come to the MLA convention. For this, I was and am genuinely grateful.

This exercise reminded me that expressing gratitude is crucial to building and maintaining healthy relationships—professional as well as personal. There is almost never any downside to saying thank you, but it can feel awkward at times. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the Univerisity of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading academic experts on gratitude, has written extensively on why gratitude is good. Emmons’s work has shown the physical, psychological, and social benefits to practicing gratitude. But, Emmons notes, there are challenges to expressing gratitude—among them, the deeply ingrained notions that we get what we deserve, that we are responsible for our own successes, and that we have control over our own environments. For these reasons, people who want to increase gratitude in their lives must deliberately cultivate it.

Gratitude in professional relationships must also be cultivated, consciously and intentionally. By this I don’t mean adding an automatic “Thanks!” to the end of an e-mail; politeness isn’t the same as gratitude. By cultivating gratitude in professional relationships, I mean really seeing who is helping you and how, and then (this is the hard part) expressing gratitude to them.

Below are three ways to cultivate and express gratitude in professional relationships.

Master the professional thank-you note.

The professional thank-you note is a tricky literary genre but a critical one. A thank-you note should be sent after all job interviews and informational interviews as well as after professional events like workshops, panels, and conferences. They are especially important if unpaid labor was involved (though, as I discuss below, you should also thank colleagues for work they do as part of their jobs).

Here is a sample e-mail sent by a graduate student after an informational interview:

Subject: Thank you for the informational interview

Dear Dr. Smith,

Thank you for meeting with me yesterday to discuss your career path from PhD student to associate director of annual giving at Upstate University. I particularly appreciated your candor about the ways in which your program did and did not prepare you and how you took the initiative to prepare yourself for careers outside the academy. I found it inspiring and admirable that you continue to do academic research in your spare time.

I greatly appreciate your generosity of time and energy, and I hope that we will stay in touch. Please let me know if there is anyone else you think I should speak to.

Would you mind if I connected with you on LinkedIn?

Best wishes,

Gretchen Gradstudent

A few comments on the thank-you note genre:

  • Use the appropriate title of address (Mr., Ms., Dr., Prof., etc.), even if you felt you were on a first-name basis with the person after the meeting or event.
  • Be brief but as specific as possible; if the person you’re thanking said something that was particularly thought-provoking, mention it.
  • Avoid over-the-top words like thrilling; there’s no need to gild the lily, and you don’t want to sound obsequious.
  • Have someone else look the note over for errors.
  • Be aware that your note might be passed on to others, perhaps to someone higher up at the person’s organization.

Last but definitely not least, treat the thank-you note as a genuine opportunity to nurture the connection that you’ve made. Networking is about relationships. Thank-you notes are a chance to further build a relationship and strengthen your network.

Express appreciation to those with whom you work on a daily basis.

It’s sometimes easier to express gratitude to people who do significant one-off favors for you than to those with whom you work side by side every day. After all, you’re all just doing your jobs, and you’re paid to work together, right?

Yes and no. Yes, you’re all paid to be there and to work together. But if someone else’s work has helped you with yours, acknowledge it. No one likes to feel taken for granted. Cultivating and expressing gratitude in the workplace benefits you as well as your colleagues and leads to a better overall environment for everyone.

Somewhat ironically, it can be hard to get people to accept gratitude in the workplace. “I was just doing my job,” your colleague may say with a shrug. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

When that happens, it’s important to clarify—again—that you are grateful for their work. “Even so,” you might say, “but it really made my life easier and my work better, and I appreciate it.”

Thank the people who have had a significant impact on you professionally.

No one gets anywhere entirely on their own. Ask anyone about her professional biography, and you’ll find it populated by mentors, advisers, and helpers of all kinds: the dissertation adviser who said to her, “There are many avenues to success, and I’ll be proud of you no matter which one you choose. How can I help?”; the career services professional who suggested a field she had never considered before; the supervisor at the summer internship who taught her how to manage a budget and referred her for a full-time job.

We tend to assume that the people in our lives know how important they are to us. That isn’t always true. And sometimes we ourselves don’t recognize how important certain people are to us until long after the fact.

There is no expiration date on gratitude. In fact, sometimes gratitude matters more once time has given you the ability to articulate the long-term impact of someone’s actions. Expressing that gratitude may also have the added benefit of rebuilding a professional relationship that has fallen by the wayside.

In a world that revels in irony and even cynicism, gratitude is unabashedly genuine. That can make it uncomfortable. But expressing gratitude gets easier with practice, and the long-term benefits of it are worth a little temporary discomfort—and these benefits aren’t limited to the maintenance of your professional network. To increase the joy you get from your work and your professional relationships, say thank you more often.

Work Cited

Emmons, Robert. “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Greater Good Magazine, 16 Nov. 2010, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good.