The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace

Aspiring front-line managers often ask me, “What would you do as a front-line manager the first week on the job.” I tell them I would start having conversations with my team members that foster emotional connections. The first questions I would ask my direct reports are, “What is your personality and temperament, what are strengths and weaknesses and how do you like to be appreciated.”

The appreciation question is probably the most important of the above queries according to marriage therapist Gary Chapman and organizational consultant Paul White. They teamed up on a book entitled, “The 5 languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,” in 2010 that turned into a New York Times bestseller. Their message is job satisfaction is not predicated on how much we earn but on how much we feel appreciated. They claim that 87% of job seekers maintain the #1 characteristic they want in the workplace is to feel valued.

Unfortunately according to Chapman and White, most people in the workplace do not feel highly regarded for the following reasons: (1) they do not get much positive feedback; (2) If they do receive praise, it does not feel meaningful and (3) their supervisors focus solely on work performance and not on getting to know them as a person.

Here are the universal languages of appreciation:

Words of Affirmation
This language connects with people who like to be singled out due to the accomplishment of a specific task. The key to this approach is to match the appreciation with the significance of the act. For example:

• Acknowledge my effort on a project during a team meeting.
• Let me know when others are commenting positively on my work.

What you want to avoid with this approach is global praise. Statements like, “Way to go folks, Keep up the good work or Great job team.” This methodology does little to encourage employees and in some cases can act as a deterrent to future positive behavior.

Tangible Gifts
For feds, this language of appreciation is of course subject to regulations on gift giving. This does not mean it cannot be an effective language of appreciation. The main thing to keep in mind with gift giving is to ensure the receiver values the gift. Gifts that go beyond just things but create experiences are the best kinds of largesse. Sporting event tickets, restaurant gift cards and cultural event coupons can really hit the sweet spot by showing employees that plenty of thought and energy was expended thinking about the gift. Other examples of tangible gifts include:

• Allow me to come in early and leave early on a certain day.
• Register me for a conference or special event.

Quality Time
Employees whose appreciation language is quality time simply want their coworkers to value them and make them feel appreciated. This can be accomplished by giving colleagues our undivided attention, sharing experiences or working in close proximity with others on group projects. Best bets for spending quality time can come in the form of:

• Taking me to lunch and not talking about work.
• Visit me occasionally to see how I am doing.

Acts of Service
Acts of service in the workplace are gestures that show our coworkers we care about them not only by telling them but showing them. It is amazing what a small act of kindness or generosity can do to make a colleague’s day better. Acts of service consist of:

• Protecting my schedule from interruptions when working on a time sensitive project.
• Helping me catch up on tasks that I may have fallen behind on during a busy part of my day.

Physical Touch
Physical touch is simply another way of acknowledging another person’s value. Before using this language of appreciation it is imperative to understand the individual’s view of what physical touch is appropriate. This will vary from person to person. Physical touch works well during a spontaneous celebration. Meaningful physical touch gestures include:

• A firm handshake for a job well done.
• A high five for finishing a project.

Chapman and White warn that just knowing how everyone in the workplace wants to be appreciated is only the first step in creating work environments that value employees. Recognition of biases regarding appreciating others is needed as well.

These experts suggest we should be cognizant of three things when it comes to recognizing appreciation languages in ourselves and others.

• We are biased toward our own language.
• We have a backup language.
• We have a least favorite language.

They emphasize that it is important to identify these 3 tendencies not only within ourselves but within our colleagues. A misplaced appreciation language can be just as painful as not being appreciated at all.

In summary, Terryberry, an employee recognition and awards firm reminds us of the 4 things necessary for people to feel valued. Appreciation must be:

• Communicated consistently.
• Expressed in language and actions that the recipient understands.
• Individualized and delivered personally.
• Viewed as authentic.

In these days where a paycheck does not quiet complete us, isn’t it good to know that being appreciated is a universal language that needs no translation.

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Mark Hammer

Nice post. Important points.

I’ve been pushing a model of “engagement” for a number of years now, that has at its heart, the perception by an employee that their effort is “justified”. There are some jobs, and some employees, where that justification is fairly straightforward: I work hard, you pay me more depending on how hard I work, I’m motivated to work harder. But in our public sector context, that tends to be atypical of the sorts of work we do, and what motivates people to join or remain in the PS. In general, people tend to need more than simple monetary rewards to feel justified.

As far as I can tell, a big part of what leads to people feeling their many different kinds of effort are justified is the congruence between what they *thought* would be valued in their performance (as well as the competencies they believe they were hired for), and what *gets* valued/rewarded/recognized.

Incongruence between the expected and the valued can take several forms. One is certainly a misrepresentation of the job at the point of hire. There is certainly no end of people who joined the public sector from post-secondary programs that feel they have been under-employed and are not using any of what their rather costly training provided them. Ph.D.s who end up proof-reading others’ work are unlikely to feel that their efforts leading up to their appointment are in any way justified. And if they had the impression their skills would be valued, and they simply aren’t, there goes your engagement. So there is no doubt that the job duties, responsibilities, and challenges need to be matched to the hire, or else justification will be hanging by a thread, and that is served by establishing role clarity up front.

Another source of incongruence is a change/shift in the role the employee is presumed to have. That can come about by changes elsewhere in the organization, or a change in the manager’s priorities, or simply a change of managers. If what you *thought* your role was is not the role management has in mind for you anymore, then it becomes easy for efforts to go unrecognized, and feel unjustified in the employee’s thinking.

Which leads to the third form of incongruence: receiving recognition for what you don’t value, yourself, and did not expect to be valued most. When the kinds of efforts you believe to be of greatest value are not accorded the greatest value, it becomes an indirect slight: damning with faint praise.

All of which leads back to one of your own most essential points: it is the match between what is rewarded/recognized, and what matters to the INDIVIDUAL employee that motivates most.

And to accomplish that, you need to *know* your employees, and not just throw the recommendations of a consultant at your staff, in generic fashion.