These days, you can’t talk about love without mentioning “love languages.”
In the last few decades, pastor and author Gary Chapman’s 1992 New York Times bestseller “The 5 Love Languages” has helped couples around the world figure out how they, and their partners, prefer to be loved: The idea is that there are five different languages of love that partners use to express and experience love. Knowing your partner’s top preferences goes a long way to making them feel loved.
A little-known fact? There’s actually a work equivalent to love languages. In 2007, Chapman partnered with psychologist and leadership trainer Paul E. White to write “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.” In an interview with HuffPost, White said the pair’s goal was to encourage more effective, well-functioning organizations by explaining how gratitude in the workplace works.
Appreciation in the workplace isn’t just there to make someone feel good ― though that’s certainly a lovely byproduct, White said: Like oil in a well-running machine, the morale boost that comes with a good show of appreciation is essential.
“Machines have parts that work together closely, which creates friction, tension, heat, and sometimes ‘sparks.’ Without oil, it takes a lot more energy for the machine to accomplish its task,” White said.
Similarly, “appreciation helps team members within an organization work together more cooperatively and helps them achieve their goals more efficiently,” he said.
Besides increasing productivity and profitability, White added two important positive results: reducing turnover and making an organization more desirable for employees to join.
“When team members feel valued, more time and energy is focused on the tasks at hand and accomplishing the mission of the organization.”
– Paul E. White, co-author of “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace”
Research backs this up. In a 2012 study by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that 93% of employees “who reported feeling valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work, and 88% reported feeling engaged.” Among that group, only 21% plan to search for a new job in the coming year.
There’s another big upside for managers who show appreciation: Doing so regularly creates work environments where coworkers are less irritable and hung up on small things that don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, such as who gets what parking spaces or who has the bigger cubicle.
“When team members feel valued, more time and energy is focused on the tasks at hand and accomplishing the mission of the organization,” White said.
What are the languages of appreciation in the workplace? They’re pretty similar to love languages in names. They are words of affirmation, quality time, tangible gifts, appropriate physical touch and acts of service. (Those heavy-lifting qualifiers ― tangible gifts and appropriate physical touch ― will undoubtedly be appreciated by any HR people reading this.)
Like in relationships, we often show appreciation for how we prefer to receive it rather than giving it the way the recipient would prefer. Either that or a manager will default to communicating appreciation to others through words: A “thanks so much for your work on this” over email or a compliment given during a meeting.
“The problem is, through our research with almost 400,000 employees, we know that using words is not the preferred mode of appreciation by over 50% of all employees,” White said. “If a leader or colleague only uses words for showing appreciation, they’re likely missing the mark for over half of their team members.”
To get a sense of what your coworkers or employees may prefer, you could straight out ask or pay attention to how they tend to express gratitude: Does Mary in accounting bring in baked goods after a team win? Does your mid-level manager write a special shout-out email to congratulate people’s performances at the end of the month? Those are good indicators that Mary prefers tangible gifts, and your mid-level manager is a words of affirmation person.
In an effort to make sure everyone feels appreciated, White and other workplace experts share more about each language and the best methods to show each type of appreciation.
Words Of Affirmation
It doesn’t matter if it’s verbally communicated or written, a words of affirmation person loves to receive positive feedback: Praise for accomplishments, even compliments about character traits (“Marjorie is so empathetic when dealing with our customers’ complaints”).
In general, they want praise that’s specific and given one-on-one, said Diana Rogers Jaeger, a leadership development consultant and the founder of Love To Appreciate consulting.
“It’s specific to people, though,” she said. “Some may prefer praise that’s given by telling others what a great job the person is doing.”
Quality time refers to feeling appreciated by spending time with those you value, from supervisors to colleagues. It could mean that you schedule some team-building activities and shared experiences, like happy hours every other Friday or yearly retreats.
But outings aren’t all that qualify as quality time. Depending on the person, it may be more about maximizing your time with each other through focused attention. For instance, an employee might really appreciate an optional weekly or bimonthly one-on-one meeting with their manager over coffee in a conference space or over Zoom.
“Quality time could mean just regularly supporting your team members,” said Yan Maschke, a strategy and leadership advisor. “Ask how they are doing, listen to them deeply, discuss their career aspirations and personal development.”
Remember, it’s about giving your undivided attention here, said Nicole Turnbull, the founder and chief courage officer at Neon Shed, a group that works to eliminate bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Turn off your emails and notifications, and put your phone away to remove distractions and be present,” she said. “Do your best not to reschedule or cancel, and make sure you’re paying attention.”
If your employees or coworkers appreciate tangible gifts, the gift has to be specific to them, not something broad and generic. If they love sour craft beer, for instance, get them one that’s super hard to find for their birthday. If they’re big into pickleball, get a group fund going for a highly-rated paddle they’d otherwise probably pass up because of the price tag.
Gifts here don’t have to be expensive or showy; it’s more about giving something that reflects your employees’ or coworkers’ interests and passions. They also don’t have to be physical gifts. White said it could be the gift of time you’re giving through extra comp time, flex time or PTO.
“Giving someone some time off to be able to run errands, go shopping during the holidays, attending their child’s out-of-town sporting event, or just have a personal day to do something rejuvenating are all great examples of using time off as a tangible gift,” he said.
Appropriate Physical Touch
Originally, White said he and Chapman struggled with whether or not to include appropriate physical touch as a language of appreciation but decided to do so for two reasons: First, they didn’t want to advocate for an entirely touchless society, even in the workplace.
“This is due to the fact that research clearly shows that appropriate physical touch within a healthy relationship and in an appropriate circumstance can be deeply meaningful and even healing,” he said.
He noted that each person has the right to set their own boundaries and determine whether they want to be touched at all in the workplace.
Secondly, physical touch naturally occurs in many workplace relationships, largely as a form of spontaneous celebration. “A high five to celebrate successfully completing a project, a fist bump in response to fixing a problem, or a congratulatory handshake when making a large sale,” White said.
Acts Of Service
Acts of service are all about helping someone out when they need it most. Acts of service people have the perspective of “Don’t tell me you care; show me,” White said.
To perform an act of service, ask yourself, “What can I do to help this person or take an action item off their plate?” Rogers Jaeger said.
“It means a lot to them when people offer to help, and they’re not required to,” she said. “It may be pitching in when someone is on a tight deadline, running an errand, bringing food and drinks when they are working late, or helping them with a computer issue.”
Ultimately, when performing an act of service, you’re helping someone get something done or get ahead.
“Maybe you’re connecting them with mentors and other resources, offering coaching and development or sharing a career opportunity,” Maschke said. “All of these are shows of appreciation that go a long way to create a positive culture and better results.”