Create a culture of gratitude by applying the 5 languages of appreciation at work

Ghina Fahs
April 12, 2023
Create a culture of gratitude by applying the 5 languages of appreciation at work
Employee experience
Fun stuff
People management

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the 5 love languages. Originally written for romantic partners and spouses, it was first introduced in 1992 by marriage counselor Dr. Gary Chapman in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts.

Now, you might be wondering why on Earth we sound like we’re about to launch into a couples self-help exposé, but hear us out. These “love languages” don’t just apply to romantic relationships; they can also be very helpful (and critical) for non-romantic relationships in your life, including in the workplace.

That’s why in 2012, Chapman collaborated with Paul White to apply those 5 love languages in contexts outside of intimate partnerships and romance. Together they published The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People, which uncovers the most effective ways to express appreciation and encouragement to your team members, colleagues, and superiors. With recent reports showing that nearly 60% of employers have been feeling unappreciated, there’s never been a better time to actively extend some gratitude. In turn, you’re bound to see a more satisfied team, increased employee morale, and higher engagement.

Defining appreciation language

First, let's define appreciation. It's not just a pat on the back or a "good job." Appreciation is actively noticing and acknowledging the efforts, hard work, and successes of your colleagues. It's a way to deliberately show that you value and respect them.

Appreciation can be expressed in different ways, and not everyone expresses appreciation or feels appreciated by the same methods of expression. Most of us tend to communicate or express our appreciation through the methods that we value personally, without taking into consideration what methods the recipients value. The key is to learn to appreciate others in the language and actions that are important to them—that’s how they’ll actually recognize and receive your appreciation. Understanding these different languages can help you tailor your messages to make the most impact.

Think about it this way: suppose your best friend just got back from a long trip and you want to invite them over for dinner, would you cook your favorite meal or theirs? Using your preferred language of appreciation when trying to express gratitude to others might not always end up the way you’d hoped. Instead you might be left wondering why they weren’t moved by the gesture.

Now that we’ve covered that part, let's dive into each of the 5 languages of appreciation:

1) Words of affirmation

This language is all about written and verbal communication. People who prefer this language appreciate kind words and compliments, and feel appreciated when they’re told that their hard work is noticed and valued. Some examples of ways to communicate words of affirmation include writing an email, pulling them aside to tell them face to face, or even shooting them a text or voice message on Slack.

A simple "I appreciate your hard work" is nice, but it can lose its effect over time. Avoid being too repetitive and keep your comments specific and personalized to make it feel more genuine. You can highlight their strengths, let them know that you understand the challenges they faced, express your gratitude, or praise them for a job well done.

For example, this can look like saying: “I understand how stressful your first project was for you, but you’ve done such a fantastic job, and your contributions were super valuable.”

2) Quality time

This language is all about giving someone your undivided attention, and it entails listening to the person rather than talking. Those who prefer this language appreciate meetings or coffee breaks where they can talk and connect at length. If you know someone likes quality time as their appreciation language, set aside some time to go for coffee, chat, and check in with them, or make an effort to spend time with them outside the typical context of work.

For example, make it a ritual to try a different lunch spot with your colleague every Wednesday.

3) Acts of service

This language is all about actions and we can agree that it’s undeniable: actions do speak volumes. People who prefer this language appreciate when their colleagues pitch in and help with tasks. Offering to help a colleague with a project or taking something off their plate shows them that their efforts aren’t going unnoticed. Even if they refuse, the intention and the offer itself is sometimes all they need to feel appreciated.

To share a few examples, you could offer to bring your colleague a cup of coffee when they’ve got back-to-back meetings, or say to them “I know you’re swamped lately, let me take over this task.”

4) Gift giving

This language is all about the rewarding feeling of receiving gifts. People who prefer this language feel valued through small tokens of appreciation like a gift card or a small present. It’s not about the cost of the gift whatsoever here; it’s more of a display that you thought of the person and decided to give them a gift you knew they would appreciate. Depending on how personalized the gift is, it’s also a nice way to let them know you’re paying attention to who they are as a person and a friend, beyond the context of being colleagues. A small treat can mean a lot; it’s the thought that counts, after all.

This can look like: getting your sticker-obsessed colleague a cool laptop sticker from your vacation.

5) (Appropriate) physical touch

This language is all about physical touch—but the non-intimate, work-appropriate kind. People who prefer this language appreciate a pat on the back, a hug, or a high five. If you want to show someone that you appreciate them, give them a friendly touch, but tread lightly with this one. It’s important to stay mindful of culture and boundaries, company policies, and social cues to avoid crossing any lines. A fist-bump or placing your hand on a shoulder is more than enough to deliver the message to those who prefer this method of appreciation.

At this point you might be wondering, how do people even like to be appreciated?

This should give you a better idea: SurveyMonkey partnered up with Bonusly and turned to over 1,500 people on SurveyMonkey Audience to dig a little deeper into the languages of appreciation—here’s what they found:

How do employees like to be appreciated at work? 5 love appreciation languages in the workplace graph chart bonusly and audience
How do employees like to show appreciation to their colleagues at work? 5 love appreciation languages in the workplace graph chart bonusly and audience

Go ahead, put them into practice!

Remember, not everyone speaks the same language of appreciation, and it can be hard to tell what suits each person best. Oftentimes, people resonate with more than one appreciation language anyway, so it's best to mix it up and use different languages to show your colleagues that you appreciate them, their talents, and their hard work.

Here are some quick tips on identifying another person’s appreciation language:

  1. Observe their actions and look for patterns: people tend to show appreciation in a way that they themselves would like to receive it. How do they express gratitude to others?

  2. Consider their personality and values: a person's appreciation language can be influenced by their personality and values.

  3. Explore: try different ways until you get a better understanding of what lights them up the most.

  4. Ask questions: you can even just ask the person directly what they prefer in terms of receiving appreciation.

To dive a little deeper into the subject, check out the video below by Vanessa Van Edwards, behavioral investigator with Science of People and author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People:

Showing genuine appreciation in the workplace can have a great impact on morale, productivity, and relationships! We’ll leave you with a simplified chart to help recap how the languages of appreciation pan out in the workplace:

5 love languages of appreciation at work in the workplace table chart

Photo credit goes out to all respective owners

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