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5 languages of appreciation in the workplace

Gauge your fluency

by Jana Cinnamon

Ensuring employees feel valued remains one of the major challenges of leading a public accounting firm. Amid the tax deadlines and client demands, making time and space to show appreciation is no small feat. It is, however, a big deal. Nearly any employee-engagement study tells you employees are happier -- and more productive -- when they feel appreciated.  

So, what's the best way to foster a culture of workplace appreciation?

I found myself contemplating this question just last year. Our firm had a longstanding tradition of employee appreciation, but sometimes it felt cookie-cutter. We recognized employee anniversaries in the same manner and celebrated everyone's tax season efforts with firmwide social events. While these practices are certainly positive, my colleagues and I felt we could do more. What if we weren't on the same page with some employees? For example, for those who aren't frozen dessert connoisseurs, does an invite to an ice cream social spark warm, fuzzy feelings of appreciation? Likely not.

The whole idea of not speaking the same language reminded me of a popular exercise my husband and I completed several years ago. Based on the early-'90s book, "The 5 Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate," by Gary Chapman, it helped us better understand how we, as individuals, expressed and understood emotional love. Curious, I turned to the internet. Lo and behold, Chapman had teamed up with Dr. Paul White to pen this intriguing title in 2011: "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People."  

The book follows the same premise as Chapman's previous bestseller -- that people express and understand appreciation in five distinct ways, or languages -- and includes an assessment that identifies your primary, secondary and lowest languages of appreciation. Here's a quick look at each.

Language No. 1: Words of affirmation

According to Chapman and White, these "words" could be spoken or in writing. Examples include sharing a handwritten note specifically calling out the recipient's actions and recognizing them at a team meeting. In terms of the latter, this might involve summoning the team member to the front of the room and verbally praising their performance.

Language No. 2: Tangible gifts

Of course, like any gift, the more closely aligned it is with the recipient's preferences, the more powerful it will be. It doesn't have to be extravagant. For instance, if your co-worker speaks this language and loves vanilla lattes, a meaningful show of appreciation might be to bring them one at the office. Or, if their favorite band is playing a show in town, giving them tickets might convey appreciation more strongly than anything else.

Language No. 3: Acts of service

People who speak this language likely feel frustrated if their boss says, "Hey, you're doing great!" and then walks away. To them, words are nothing; actions are everything. Showing appreciation to these team members might include an offer to take something off their plate or work alongside them on a demanding project.

Language No. 4: Quality time

In the workplace, quality time could include stopping by a co-worker's desk to ask how things are going or inviting them out to lunch. But quality time doesn't always have to be lengthy, personal chitchats. Asking for someone's professional opinion or feedback could also be perceived as appreciation.

Language No. 5: Physical touch

I'll share a spoiler from the book: In their assessments, Chapman and White never found "physical touch" to be anyone's primary language of appreciation in the workplace. For this reason, it doesn't even show up in the list of assessment results. But, the authors agree there are some who identify with this language, and that these individuals would likely perceive a high-five or pat on the shoulder as a gesture of appreciation.

Lessons from applying the languages

After reading the book and taking the assessment, I was encouraged by the idea of individualized appreciation and its power in the workplace. More importantly, I was confident it could be a valuable tool for strengthening our firm's employee appreciation efforts.

In the process of identifying my own language of appreciation (quality time), I gained new awareness of how I communicate to and receive appreciation from my team. My lowest language is acts of service, which didn't surprise me: I often feel stressed when someone offers to help. Knowing this -- and my team members' languages of appreciation -- helped me to understand that a co-worker's offer to help could in fact be motivated by genuine appreciation.

That's where I see the true value of this tool: It doesn't have to be a top-down approach. Exploring the five languages of appreciation is helpful not just for improving employee recognition, but also for enhancing teamwork and camaraderie. After all, creating opportunities for mutual understanding is always a worthy endeavor.

We decided to roll out the five-languages initiative across smaller department teams instead of as a firmwide effort. On my team, we each took the assessment and then held a group discussion around the results. I believe this is helpful, particularly for countering a concern that many managers may have when doling out recognition: fairness. Making sure all team members are aware of the initiative and its intentions can help to prevent hurt feelings.

Finally, I think it's also important to realize that we might not always hit the mark; our efforts to show appreciation might not be perfect. But the benefits of personalizing appreciation are worth the risk of a misstep.

Apply effective appreciation in your workplace

We all have a human need to feel loved and cared for. The five-languages initiative gives us an easy way to fulfill it that costs next to nothing. Letting our co-workers know they are valued could make a difference in their lives -- both within and beyond the office walls. 

Note: This article was originally published in Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants September 2018 Footnote Magazine.