Love Languages at the Office

 minute read

Anna Silman

You’ve probably heard of love languages. Maybe you’re an ‘acts of service’ type, who shows your partner how much you care by doing the dishes or taking the dog out for an early morning walk when they’re nursing a crippling tequila hangover. Maybe you thrive on ‘words of affirmation,’ and feel most loved when your partner regularly verbalizes how much he or she cares for you, or how great you look in those new shoes. Maybe your love language is ‘touch,’ and nothing cheers you up more than a good cuddle sesh.

The five love languages—the different ways to express and experience love for your romantic partner —were coined by Dr. Gary Chapman in his bestselling 1992 book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. But what you may not know is that the concept of love languages can also be applied to our work in the office, albeit in a slightly different way (spoiler alert: touch is not high up there). As Chapman and Paul White detail in their follow up book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation In The Workplace, just as in relationships, each person has a primary language of appreciation when it comes to their place of work, and they feel most valued by their colleagues and superiors when they are communicated with in that primary language. In the book, Chapman and White include a ‘Motivation By Appreciation inventory’ (aka. MBA inventory) that you and your team can do to figure out the best ways to provide positive reinforcement for a team with different emotional and psychological needs.

So, how can you best show your appreciation for your colleagues and subordinates, when we’re all speaking different love languages, like a workplace Tower of Babel? Here are some starting points:

Words of Affirmation
For a lot of people, it’s not enough to know that they’re doing a good job—they need to hear it. This includes praising someone for their accomplishments, affirming their positive character traits and praising their personality. This is my primary language of affirmation, meaning I personally feel so much more valued  (and more motivated to work hard!) when my boss gives me positive reinforcement on my work. However, the context in which people prefer to receive words of affirmation can differ from person-to-person: some affirmation is best given one-on-one, some in front of a group and some in writing. ‘Words of Affirmation’ is consistently the most popular language of appreciation, chosen by 45% of employees that have completed the MBA inventory, so even if you aren’t sure what someone’s primary language of appreciation is, a little bit of verbal reinforcement is usually a safe bet.

Quality Time
Those employees whose primary language of appreciation is quality time don’t necessarily want to be partying with their bosses outside work. Rather, taking a few minutes to regularly check-in with employees and see how they are doing can go a long way towards making them feel valued. For employees whose primary language is ‘quality time,’ IRL facetime can be key in keeping up motivation, especially as work communications increasingly take place over email and Slack. Some of the ‘dialects’ in which you can communicate quality time are: focused attention, quality conversation, shared experiences, small group dialogue and working collegially with coworkers on a task. (My preferred dialect? The after-work happy hour).

Acts of Service
People who have this primary language of appreciation like when other people reach out to help them get work done. This is the show-don’t-tell language, which thrives more on tangible work than verbal praise. However, this can be a tricky language in which to communicate, as you don’t want to feel like you’re stepping on colleagues’ toes. Some tips that White and Chapman provide when communicating in this tricky language: make sure your own work is done before volunteering to help others; ask before you help; don’t assume what help they want or need; serve voluntarily; check your attitude; complete what you start; and if you’re going to help, do it their way.

Tangible Gifts
When Chapman and White talk about gifts, they don’t mean raises or bonuses; rather, they are usually talking about small personal tokens that show you are getting to know and value your coworkers for who they are. This doesn’t mean splurging at Sephora: it could be as simple as bringing pizza to the office, or intangible things like giving someone a longer lunch break. However, their research shows that only 6% of people have tangible gifts as their primary language, and that thoughtless, hastily-bought gifts can actually make someone feel undervalued instead of valued— so gift wisely!

Physical Touch
This may not surprise you, but Chapman and White opted not to include physical touch in their MBA inventory. While touch is obviously important to people in their personal lives, it is pretty much never anyone’s primary language of appreciation when it comes to their office. It  can be unwelcome, inappropriate, invasive, or the starting point for a sexual harassment claim. 

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