Leading Those Who Are Different From You


One of the lessons that aspiring leaders and those who want to continue to develop their leadership abilities must learn is: to be an effective leader, you have to learn how to lead individuals who are different from you. If you don’t, you will only be able to gather and lead those who are similar to you in personality, perspective or ability; and this, in turn, limits what you can accomplish. Although at first the idea seems intriguing, you actually don’t want to lead a group of “Junior You’s”. You may be talented but you can’t do everything, and to accomplish significant goals you need team members who are different (and even significantly different) from you.  This includes how people are motivated and what feels rewarding to them.

Not Everyone Appreciates Your Type of Appreciation

Here is a simple but foundational truth: not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways. Not everyone likes public recognition or social events. One leader stated, “You can give me an award but you’ll have to drag me up front for me to get it in front of a crowd.” And for many introverts, going to a “staff appreciation dinner” is more like torture than a reward for doing a good job. They may prefer getting a gift card for a bookstore and staying at home and reading. Find out what they value and communicate in that language.

Some people highly value words of affirmation—which can be a simple compliment. (“Jill, thanks for getting the report completed and to me in time for the presentation.”) However, other individuals don’t value verbal praise because to them “words are cheap.” One office manager reported that “John compliments everyone all the time and that’s fine. But what I really would like is just a little time with his undivided attention, where I can talk to him without distractions.” A third language of appreciation is “acts of service.” As one team member shared, “It’s not that encouraging to me to get a bunch of praise for all the work I’ve done while I continue to work long hours to finish a job. Even though it is supposed to be a ‘team project’, no one else offers to help get the materials completed. A little practical help would be quite encouraging.” For some individuals, a small tangible gift can be quite meaningful.

However, this is not the same as bonuses or additional compensation. Rather, it is a small gift that shows that you’re getting to know your team members, what they like, and what is important to them in their life outside of work. It can be something as small as one of their favorite cups of coffee, or a magazine about a hobby that they enjoy (for example, gardening), or sports memorabilia for the college team that they follow.

Appropriate physical touch is the final language of appreciation that can be utilized in the workplace. While it is critical that any physical touch is appropriate (not being sexualized or unwanted), physical touch is actually common in many workplaces and cultures. “High five’s” when a project is completed, a “fist bump” given when a problem is solved, or a congratulatory hand shake when an important sale is made are all examples of appropriate physical touch in work-based relationships.

The problem is: most of us communicate appreciation to others either: a) in the ways that are most meaningful to us, or b) through the ways we’ve observed others try to communicate appreciation. So this results in us “missing” many of our team members.

If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory  will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another.

Remember, not everyone desires to be shown appreciation in the same way that you do. And if you are going to build (and keep) a team of diverse individuals, you need to learn how they want to be encouraged and have appreciation communicated. If you don’t, who you will be able to lead will be severely limited — basically to people who are just like you (which doesn’t make for a very robust team!)

Dr. Paul White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply


I recently read the 5 languages of appreciation in the workplace (by the 5 love languages author) and you’re spot on. If it’s not how someone wants to be appreciated then it’s like it never happened.

Many are lamenting that there’s no money for awards any more. But, I think it’s a great opportunity for people to think outside of the box about how to demonstrate appreciation.

Paul White

Dana, thanks for your supportive comment. Yes, I actually am the co-author with Dr Chapman of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (along with two other books we wrote together.)

Recently, I published research on over 100,000 employees who have taken our Motivating By Appreciation Inventory, which identifies the language of appreciation people prefer (you can see a brief summary at http://www.appreciationatwork.com/blog ) where we found less than 10% of employees choose tangible gifts as their primary language of appreciation. Dr. Paul

Tami douglas

Some leaders are natural some are trained. But the best leaders show themselves and strive to make sure that the person or people that they are leading have what they need, to become the best they can be.


Thanks for writing…..very thought provoking.
I often wonder if company culture is something a leader can create or does it emerge from all those that are employed there at the time?
It seems that the professional development or human resources arm of any organization will have to conduct surveys to see where the company is at culturally to know how to interact with them. Also, if the owners of that company want to nurture a basic philosophy of how a company should run, teaching and redirecting will have to take place to make sure that culture is preserved.
To preserve any culture, work has to be done. Cultures, like languages, can become endangered.

Paul White

“J”, great question about how does a culture develop at work? My new book, The Vibrant Workplace, is subtitled: “Overcoming the obstacles to building a culture of appreciation” — where we identified the 10 most common challenges to creating a positive workplace and practical steps to take to over come them.

You are right to preserve (and to build) a culture — it takes a lot of work. But it can be done!

Dr. Paul