These days, everyone is talking about “love languages.” In the last few decades, author and pastor Gary Chapman’s 1992 New York Times bestseller “The 5 Love Languages” has helped couples worldwide 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 is that there’s actually a work equivalent to love languages. In 2007, Chapman collaborated with leadership trainer and psychologist Paul E. White to write “The 5 Love Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.” White said their goal was to encourage well-functioning, more effective organizations by sharing how gratitude in the workplace works. Appreciation in the workplace isn’t just there to make someone feel good, though that’s a lovely byproduct.
According to White, like oil in a well-running machine, the morale boost that comes with a good show of appreciation is essential. He added that machines have parts that work together, which creates tension, friction, heat, and sometimes sparks. Without oil, it takes more energy for the machine to accomplish its task. Similarly, appreciation helps team members within an organization work together more cooperatively and helps them achieve their goals more efficiently.
Besides increasing profitability and productivity, White added two essential positive results: making an organization more desirable for employees to join and reducing turnover. Research seems to back this up. In a study by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that 93 percent of employees who reported feeling valued said that they were motivated to do their best at work, and 88 percent reported feeling engaged. Among that group, only 21 percent plan to search for a new job in the coming year.
What are the languages of appreciation in the workplace? They’re similar to love languages in names. They are words of affirmation, quality time, tangible gifts, appropriate physical touch, and acts of service. Here’s more information about each language and the best way to show each type of appreciation.
Words of affirmation.
It doesn’t matter if it’s written or verbally communicated, a words of affirmation person loves to receive positive feedback, praise for accomplishments, and even compliments about character traits. In general, they want praise that’s specific and given one one-on-one. However, it’s specific to people. Some might 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 colleagues to supervisors. It could mean you set aside some time for team-building activities and shared experiences, like yearly retreats or happy hours every other Friday. Still, outings aren’t all that qualify as quality time. Depending on the person, it may be more than maximizing with each other through focused attention. For example, an employee might really appreciate an optional weekly or bimonthly one-on-one meeting with their manager over Zoom or in a conference space.
Quality time could mean just regularly supporting your team members. Ask how they’re doing, listen to them, and discuss personal development or career aspirations. Remember, it’s about giving your undivided attention. Turn off your notifications and emails, and put your phone away to eliminate distractions and be present. Do your best not to reschedule or cancel, and ensure you’re paying attention.
If your coworkers or employees appreciate tangible gifts, the gift has to be specific to them, not something generic and broad. For example, if they love sour craft beer, get them one that’s difficult to find for their birthday. If they love pickleball, set up a group fund for a highly-rated paddle they’d otherwise pass up because of the price tag. Gifts don’t have to be showy or expensive, but it’s more about giving something that reflects your coworkers’ or employees’ passions and interests.
They also don’t have to be physical gifts. White said it could be the gift of time you’re giving through flex time, extra comp time, or PTO. Giving someone some time off to go shopping during the holidays, run errands, attend their child’s out-of-town sporting event, or just have a personal day are all great examples of using time off as a tangible gift.
Appropriate physical touch.
Initially, 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: one, they didn’t want to advocate for an entirely touchless society, even in the workplace, due to the fact that research shows that appropriate physical touch within a healthy relationship and in an appropriate circumstance can be significant and even healing. White noted that each person has the right to set boundaries and determine if they want to be touched in the workplace.
Secondly, physical touch naturally happens in many workplace relationships, mainly as a form of spontaneous celebration. A high-five to celebrate completing a project, a fist bump in response to solving a problem, or a congratulatory handshake when making a large sale are all examples of appropriate physical touch.
Acts of service.
Acts of service are all about helping someone out when they need it most. According to White, acts of service people have the perspective of “Don’t tell me you care, show me.” To perform an act of service, ask yourself what you can do to help this person or take an action item off their list. It means a lot to them when people offer to help, and they’re not required to. It may be running an errand, pitching in when someone is on a tight deadline, bringing food when they’re working late, or helping them with a computer problem.
Ultimately, when performing an act of service, you’re helping someone get ahead or get something done. Perhaps you’re connecting them with mentors or other resources, offering development and coaching or sharing a new career opportunity. All of these are shows of appreciation that go a long way to create better results and a positive culture.
To get an idea of what your employees or coworkers prefer, you could ask them or pay attention to how they typically express gratitude. Does Mary in HR bring in baked goods after a team win? Does your manager write a special shout-out email to congratulate people’s performances? Those are good indicators that Mary prefers tangible gifts and your manager loves words of affirmation.