– 16 min read
The 5 love languages at work: how to choose the right words for team success
When your boss doesn’t offer appreciation for what you do, no matter how hard you work, it’s an exhausting path to burnout. And as a manager, when your employees feel undervalued, you’re on a costly road to employee turnover.
This unmet human need — the need to feel valued and secure in one’s role — may not stem from the lack of a generous salary or employee benefits package (although competitive wages and benefits certainly meet other fundamental human needs).
According to psychologists Gary Chapman and Paul White, the lack of appreciation is a symptom of a communication problem: mismatched love languages.
What are love languages at work?
Dr. Chapman originally introduced the five love languages to the world as a bestselling book and as a tool to help couples “identify the root of [their] conflicts, [and] give and receive love in more meaningful ways.” When Dr. Chapman later partnered with Dr. Paul White, the duo adapted the love languages concept to a book and training system for businesses called The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.
Regardless of the audience, the concept remains the same: it takes different approaches to help people feel appreciated and valued. The love/appreciation languages encompass the five primary means through which you can connect with people and give them the sense of appreciation they need.
In the workplace, tailoring your tone and communication style to your team members’ individual love language translates to positive, measurable outcomes like increased productivity and decreased employee turnover.
Recognition vs. appreciation
To successfully speak a love language at work, you need to understand that recognition differs from appreciation.
Recognition is a generic, public acknowledgment of work that’s usually given when someone achieves a performance goal. While many companies have employee recognition programs that help boost team morale and give visibility to wins, not everyone is comfortable with public announcements — they may feel embarrassed or targeted by it.
Appreciation is more individualized. It’s offered randomly, and it’s especially powerful when given for undervalued tasks or interactions that aren’t directly tied to performance metrics. While a company shows recognition for a sales rep overperforming on a quota, a manager can express appreciation to a sales rep for asking insightful questions in a team standup.
The goal of appreciation is to make someone feel truly seen and let them know they and their work matter to you and your company.
Ready to start speaking multiple languages of appreciation with your coworkers and employees? Let’s examine the workplace love languages and how to effectively communicate with them.
1. Words of Affirmation
If you’re someone who needs to hear in words what people value about you, your primary language of appreciation is Words of Affirmation. When communicated effectively at work, Words of Affirmation are verbal encouragements that tap into what makes an individual a unique contributor.
Strengths and challenges of offering Words of Affirmation
Words of Affirmation is the most common primary or secondary love language. With at least 70% of companies planning to continue working remotely through 2021, Words of Affirmation may be the ticket to keeping many of your remote workers fulfilled, motivated, and healthy. According to Gallup, frequent feedback is key to engaging remote workers, and pointing out individual strengths helps reduce employee burnout.
Offering Words of Affirmation goes beyond giving generic praise. Positive phrases like “great work” may sound like Words of Affirmation, but they don’t meet the fundamental need of the individual who desires to understand what makes their work great.
Tips for working with people who need Words of Affirmation
If you’re not particularly adept at expressing yourself through words, finding the right ones may feel like a stretch — or even like you’re unnecessarily fawning. The key to avoiding an insincere shower of praise is to focus less on making a person feel good and more on communicating the positive change they create in your life and in your organization.
As a manager with an employee who needs Words of Affirmation:
• Identify specific actions that you appreciate. E.g., “I really appreciate how you jumped in to help the new team member.”
• Let them know how their work positively impacts other stakeholders. E.g., “You’re making them feel welcomed and supported, plus you’re taking some of the pressure off of me while I’m putting out other fires.”
As a team member with a manager who needs Words of Affirmation:
• Focus on how they help you become better at what you do. E.g., “Knowing that you encourage me to delegate when I feel overwhelmed is helping me be better at time and task management.”
Words of Affirmation power phrases
• “I appreciate how you . . .”
• “Thanks to your work, we . . .”
• “The <specific contribution> you provided helped me/us to . . .”
• “You excel at <unique contribution/skillset> and that helps me/us to . . .”
2. Tangible Gifts
If you delight in receiving tokens of appreciation in the form of material objects, your love language is Tangible Gifts.
A gift is an artifact of the positive thoughts the giver has about an individual and their work. Tangible gifts can be physical objects, but they can also be pre-paid experiences like event tickets or gift certificates for restaurants, movies, and spas. For some, a Tangible Gift can even be paid time off.
Strengths and challenges of offering Tangible Gifts
A Tangible Gift can be a powerful statement and a physical reminder of team support, especially if most of your team interactions happen digitally. Loads of gifting services have popped up in response to so many companies going remote, so finding and delivering gifts to employees is easier than ever.
But companies often apply Tangible Gifts in the wrong way.
First, it’s rare to find someone who really values Tangible Gifts. According to Paul White, “only 6% of employees identify Tangible Gifts as their primary language of appreciation.” Because so few people speak in gifts, companies end up wasting money on swag that adds little value to people’s work lives.
Plus, companies and managers may not distinguish between rewards and gifts. Rewards like trophies, plaques, and watches are often conditional and given in recognition for employees achieving performance goals (see the above section on recognition versus appreciation). Paul White observes that this type of reward system that incentivizes desired behavior can feel manipulative and might even lead to burnout for people who crave Tangible Gifts as a source of fulfillment.
A gift, on the other hand, is given without conditions. To make Tangible Gifts an effective form of appreciation that drives a sense of wellbeing in a team member, you shouldn’t require a certain behavior or action before or after giving it. The act of giving Tangible Gifts randomly triggers reciprocity because it’s unexpected.
Tips for working with people who value Tangible Gifts
Here are three rules of thumb on getting it right for the Tangible Gift-speakers in your life:
Identify the people who need gifts to feel appreciated. Observation is key. When a team member shows off the presents they get from loved ones, that may mean they are gift-driven.
Choose gifts that the receiver will genuinely value. Pay close attention to individuals’ interests and reflect those in the present you choose. And that’s the point of the Tangible Gift: making the person feel seen, not just for what they do, but who they are.
Communicate the meaning behind the gift. Tell the person why you’re giving them the present. It will help drive home the sense of appreciation that you’re trying to express.
As a manager with an employee who value Tangible Gifts:
• Keep an ongoing “wish list” of material things or experiences the gift-driven person expresses a desire for.
• Make gifting random, personal, and unconditional.
As a team member with a manager who values Tangible Gifts:
• Choose gift-giving times carefully. You don’t want a gift to come off as a bribe to curry favor for an upcoming performance review or promotion.
Tangible Gifts power phrases
• “I saw this and thought of you because . . .”
• “This <gift> is for the amazing work you did on . . .”
• “I want you to have this because . . .”
3. Quality Time
If you’re someone who feels the most fulfilled by interacting and sharing experiences with the people in your life, your primary love language is Quality Time. According to Paul White, Quality Time at work is “spending time with a colleague either by giving the person your focused attention or working collaboratively with them.”
Strengths and challenges of giving Quality Time
You don’t need to be in the same space to give someone Quality Time, which is good news for remote teams. Plus, in our time-crunched world, a satisfying Quality Time session doesn’t have to be long — a five-minute check-in can provide lots of value (as long as it’s five minutes of focused attention).
Fulfilling the needs of those who crave Quality Time requires that we slow down and truly connect. That can be challenging when so many of us divide our attention between screens, tabs, and growing task lists. But setting aside all distractions and investing in grounded, focused time not only helps your Quality Time-driven coworker; it also helps with anxiety and other mental health challenges you may be experiencing.
Tips for working with people who need Quality Time
Quality Time, like Tangible Gifts, should be offered randomly and not always directly connected to one’s work obligations. The delight of giving someone your time is in letting them know you want to spend time with them, not that you have to spend time with them.
As a manager with an employee who values Quality Time:
• Make a point of inviting them to lunch so you can get to know them as a person.
• Set up regular one-on-one meetings to touch base.
• Invite them to collaborative meetings or work sessions to show you value their contribution.
• Devote time to building team cohesion. Set up virtual (non-mandatory) co-working sessions, board game or trivia nights, and other fun group activities.
As a team member with a manager who values Quality Time:
• Offer to have conversations face to face, either via live conferencing or in person.
• Invite them to brainstorming sessions to show you value their guidance.
• Include them in off-hours events (as long as it’s not awkward for them to be there).
Quality Time power phrases
• “Let’s sync up on this together . . .”
• “I’d love to hear your thoughts on . . .”
• “Would you like to join me for <X event>?”
4. Acts of Service
If your personal mantra is “actions speak louder than words” and you feel happiest when people help you get tasks done, your primary love language is Acts of Service. For folks who respond to Acts of Service, the best way for you to express appreciation is to prove it with action.
Strengths and challenges of offering Acts of Service
Since one out of five employees have Acts of Service as their primary love language (and with another 15% reporting it as their secondary language), it’s hard to go wrong with rolling up your sleeves and pitching in. Plus, helping people out provides a natural high, which can boost the mood of everyone working on a project together.
The challenge that comes with performing Acts of Service is boundary-setting. If you’re a people-pleaser, it may be tempting to “bend over backward” to show your appreciation for a great boss or teammate. This can take time or energy away from your own needs — which isn’t what a service-driven person would ever want.
Plus, it can be tough to find the time for voluntary acts of service between performing duties related to your work. But to Acts of Service-driven folks, the tiniest gesture of help — even if it’s not much work for you — can mean a lot.
Tips for working with people who value Acts of Service
There’s a careful art to helping people out — especially if the purpose is to make them feel appreciated. To effectively perform an Act of Service:
Ask before helping. You don’t want to step on someone’s toes or unintentionally communicate that you don’t think someone is capable.
Make it clear the Act of Service is voluntary. A favor is only delightful if it’s done because someone wants to help, and they are happy to do so. The magic of a favor disappears if you discover it was performed out of obligation or reluctantly.
Clarify how they want the task done. It’s not helpful if the favor ends up creating more work for the person who needs it.
Finish what you start. That means you should only offer help when you can complete the task — don’t bite off more than you can chew.
As a manager of an employee who values Acts of Service:
The biggest help you can give/appreciation you can show to a service-driven person can often come in the form of things below your “pay grade.”
• Carry out simple, low-level tasks (like sending meeting invites or doing a coffee run) to help them focus on high-level projects.
• Provide service-related perks: order lunch for the team, give gift certificates for TaskRabbit, or offer a housecleaning service stipend for employees who work from home.
As a team member of a manager who values Acts of Service:
• Pitch in without being asked. Service-driven bosses appreciate when they see team members offer help unprompted.
• Volunteer to help with work you know they dislike — like fixing a broken spreadsheet formula or writing post-meeting notes.
• If your schedule allows, step up to cover work when a team member is out of the office.
Acts of Service power phrases
• “Is there anything I could do for you that would make your work easier?”
• “I’ve got some time, and I’d love to help.”
• “What would be the biggest help to you right now?”
5. Physical Touch
If you feel the most energized after a hug or a hardy handshake, your primary love language is Physical Touch. From fist-bumps to friendly shoulder-pats, Physical Touch is a natural tool for expressing appreciation.
Strengths and challenges of Giving Physical Touch
Like Acts of Service, Physical Touch triggers oxytocin, the hormone that boosts mood, morale, and connection between teammates. Unfortunately, satisfying the needs of those who require Physical Touch to feel appreciated is a tall order in the workplace.
In the pandemic era, where social distance is a matter of survival, it’s more difficult than ever to provide Physical Touch. Plus, even in non-pandemic times, Physical Touch comes with a tangle of ethical dilemmas around work-appropriate physical boundaries and cultural norms.
Tips for working with people who need Physical Touch
Until we’ve reached a confident level of COVID herd immunity, it’s wise to stay touch-free in the workplace. Once we’re out of the woods, gain clarity on your company policies around appropriate Physical Touch.
In the meantime, if you have employees or managers who are touch-driven, consider giving sensory-friendly gifts like Snuggie blankets, squeeze balls, or gift certificates for spas as a proxy for actual touch.
Physical Touch power phrases
• “Virtual high-five!”
• “I want to shake your hand for the outstanding job
you did on . . .”
• “You get a big pat on the back for <contribution>.”
Intentional communications create a healthier work environment
Speaking people’s professional love languages is about more than bringing out the best work in employees. It’s also a way to walk the walk of embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When you choose the right words based on individual team members’ love languages, it shows that you’re intentional in your communications, you care about their individual needs, and you want to create an environment where their inherent worth is acknowledged and honored.
Learn more about healthy communication in the workplace.