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HR & culture

The five languages of appreciation at work

By Isabel
12 Jul 2022

Research shows that good working rela­tion­ships are key to job sat­is­fac­tion and happiness in the workplace. And appre­ci­a­tion plays a major role here.

But everyone expe­ri­ences appre­ci­a­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. For example, a simple pat on the back might give one person a real boost, while someone else only really feels appre­ci­at­ed when they’re given more respon­si­bil­i­ty or the chance to be promoted.

According to the American therapist Gary Chapman, author of The Five Languages of Appre­ci­a­tion in the Workplace, appre­ci­a­tion and recog­ni­tion must be com­mu­ni­cat­ed in the right way to really have an impact on happiness at work. Let’s take a closer look at those five languages!

Organisations that focus a lot on appreciation have 31% less staff turnover.”

1. Quality time

For some, nothing beats personal inter­ac­tions. Feeling listened to when you’re talking about something personal, a genuine interest being shown in how things are going at home, an engaging con­ver­sa­tion at the coffee machine, a short lunchtime walk, going to a training course or conference together: these are just a few examples of how a little bit of effort can go a long way.

2. Positive words

Positive words increase the level of mutual trust and help boost the other person’s strengths. If this is your preferred language, you don’t shy away from giving com­pli­ments. The challenge is to make those com­pli­ments really specific.

3. Help & support

Some employees (and managers) mainly want to do something’: provide some form of help to the other person. As a manager, make sure you also ask your employee what kind of help they would like to receive.

TIP: Ask yourself these questions: How often do I get people to help each other?’ and What can I do to make the work easier?’

4. Physical contact

This language is of course highly dependent on the culture in your organ­i­sa­tion. Not everyone appre­ci­ates physical contact, and different cultures deal with it in different ways. If you know that it would be appro­pri­ate, a handshake, high-five or pat on the back is a great option. If an employee has suffered a loss and you have a good rela­tion­ship with that person, a hug might be the right choice, says Gary Chapman.

5. Gifts

You can also invest in a working rela­tion­ship by giving someone a gift. Everyone loves getting a nice surprise. If this is their preferred language, these employees will really appreciate receiving a personal gift.

But we’ve all been in that situation where you get given something you don’t like. You don’t want to come across as ungrateful, so you keep quiet. In the workplace then, choosing the wrong gift can even have a completely coun­ter­pro­duc­tive effect.

As part of our own research, we asked 2,000 employees in Belgium and the Nether­lands about their ideal employee gift. A physical gift like a bottle of wine or food hamper got the vote of only 1 in 10 employees. These gifts aren’t personal enough and often end up getting shoved in a cupboard. So what would employees prefer then?

A personal gift on special occasions (newborn, retirement, birthday, Christmas, etc.) that offers a lot of freedom to choose, like a gift card that you can spend in a range of different shops.

The least appreciated language

In the same way that everyone has a preferred language, there are also languages that are valued less by each individual. It’s good to be aware of that,’ say Chapman & White. If you use the wrong language, your employee won’t feel appre­ci­at­ed. So make sure you have all the right languages of appre­ci­a­tion in your leadership toolbox!

An example: Your employee has just delivered a chal­leng­ing project. Time to put them in the spotlight during a team meeting with some words of praise and a big bouquet of flowers, you might think. But what if this colleague doesn’t like being the star of the show and literally lies awake at night from the stress of all the attention? A bouquet of flowers with a personal thank you card, placed on their desk or delivered to their home, is the most suitable language here.

Another example: You notice that an employee isn’t getting their work done on time, so you ask another colleague to take over some of their tasks. But your employee has a great sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty, and having work taken off them feels like a personal failure. In this situation, the way to let them know that you appreciate them is to give them a bit of extra quality time. For example, you could go out for lunch together, which would also be the perfect oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask them what’s wrong.

Top-down to 360° recognition culture

According to Gary Chapman and Paul White, recog­ni­tion isn’t just a topic for management. It’s also about colleagues showing their appre­ci­a­tion for each other, as well as an employee appre­ci­at­ing their manager or supplier, etc. So for maximum impact, recog­ni­tion needs to be ingrained in your company culture. You as a manager might show your appre­ci­a­tion for your staff, but if the rest of your team doesn’t do the same, you’ll still be left with unhappy employees.

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