Speak Your Co-Workers’ Languages
for Better Office Harmony
Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is a Licensed Practicing Psychologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Master's degree in Physical Therapy, and the authority on how to crush your inner critic so that you can live a life of purpose, fulfillment and True Success™. She’s America’s most trusted celebrity psychologist with over 100 national media interviews. She writes for Combined Insurance in an effort to help educate readers, but her medical opinions and advice are for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for visiting your doctor.
Lisa was known around the office as someone who was usually pleasant but could be really tough to work with during stressful times. In fact, colleagues tried to avoid her when things got tense, such as the close of the fiscal year (Lisa was in finance).
One late afternoon, when it was evident Lisa was stressed out and most people were going out of their way to not walk near her desk, Karl went up to her with an empathetic tone and asked, “I am sure you have a lot going on. How may I support you?” With tears of gratitude in her eyes, Lisa requested that he make copies of the stack of papers on her desk. While this was not part of Karl’s job responsibilities (he was in marketing), he gladly scooped up the pile and, 25 minutes later, brought back her copies. Lisa thanked Karl for three days.
Lisa’s love language is acts of service. Karl offering to help her out was him speaking in her language of appreciation. And it was more meaningful to Lisa than getting a $100 check.
Working in organizations to help boost employee engagement, people often ask me “what is the best way to show my team appreciation?”
My response? “It depends.”
You see, different modes of appreciation mean different things to different people. The goal is to determine what mode of appreciation is most meaningful to each individual and share that.
Perhaps you have heard of the concept called “Love Languages.” It refers to the way in which people communicate love and appreciation. Discovered by Dr. Gary Chapman, there are five modalities by which people “hear” appreciation. They are: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. We will look more closely at each of this in a moment. First, though, let’s explore why they are so important.
Love languages in the workplace
Just like if someone said to you, “I appreciate you” in a language you don’t speak, so too can people not (fully) hear your positive intentions if you are not speaking in their love language.
Originally used to explore relationships between couples, this framework can also provide powerful knowledge to optimize relationships at work. In essence, these are languages to communicate appreciation and encouragement. And such communication can have a significant impact on a company.
According to a recent Gallup survey, 65%-70% of the US workers are not engaged at work. This is significant because research shows disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability. Breaking down the dollar amount, it appears that, for a disengaged employee, there is a loss of 34% of their annual salary.
79% of people who quit their job cite "lack of appreciation" as the main reason. And, according to Gallup, “The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee's annual salary -- and that's a conservative estimate.”
Helping team members feel appreciated can help elevate employee engagement and reduce turnover. The caveat, however, is that the team member needs to actually “hear” the appreciation that is being shared. How can you ensure this? Each person hears appreciation in their love language, while people usually speak in their own love language. So, a manager could be sharing appreciation for someone on their team, but, if it is not in the recipient’s love language, it could be falling on deaf ears.
They key to using love languages at work is to speak in the other person’s preferred mode. To do that, let’s look at the five love languages in more detail, including what they are and how you can use them at work.
Words of affirmation:
Words of affirmation refers to verbal or written words used to appreciate, acknowledge and encourage others. This can include compliments (e.g., “Great job on the presentation”), recognition (e.g., “Let’s congratulate Sally for winning the new business deal”) and gratitude (e.g., “thank you for your hard work on the project”). For someone whose primary love language is words of affirmation, unsolicited commendation can mean a lot.
These words can be shared one-on-one, in the form a praise in front of a group, “bragging” about someone behind their back and/or a written thank you note. The words can be about specific accomplishments as well as effort, shared insights, and appreciation for getting to work together.
I remember the power of a “thank you” one time when I was on the Dr. Oz show. An entry-level producer was in charge of my travel. After I landed back in my hometown of Chicago, I emailed her a “thank you” for all of her time conducting my travel plans. She immediately emailed me back, telling me no one had ever thank her for her work and it made her week. That’s a powerful 3 sentence email.
A key when it comes to words of affirmation is to be specific about what, precisely, you are affirming. So “thank you” is nice, but “thank you for putting in so many extra hours in order to get the deck ready on time” would be even more meaningful to the person whose primary love language is words of affirmation.
Here are some more examples of how to speak in words of affirmation at work:
- Acknowledge effort on a project.
- Recognize a team member in front of others for work well done.
- Offer a written or verbal “thanks” for someone’s contribution.
- Send an email to let someone know they are doing a good job.
- Recognize when someone handles a difficult situation.
- Write a hand-written note of appreciation.
Those for whom quality time is their primary love language feel most appreciated when given your full, undivided attention. They long to have one-on-one conversations or interactions. Examples could mean a one-on-one scheduled meeting, stopping by (or hopping on a zoom call) to check in, going for a walk or a cup of coffee (even virtually during COVID).
Now, we all know people who are present, but not really present. By that I mean their body may be in front of you, but their mind is elsewhere. And, for someone whose primary love language is quality time, that feels like a big insult. So, to optimize speaking in this language, truly be mindful. That means get rid of or minimize external distractions (such as your cell phone ringing or, on a zoom call, email notifications binging) as well as internal distractions (such as thinking about an argument you had with your partner or how many things you need to accomplish today). And be on time for meetings and staying for the entire meeting when you are with this person.
Other ways to communicate appreciation for someone whose primary love language is quality time include:
- Getting coffee or lunch together to talk about work issues.
- Getting coffee or lunch together and not talk about work issues.
- A phone or zoom “check in” to see how they are doing.
- Getting together for occasional after-hours team events.
- Volunteer together.
- Having a regular “check in” meeting to catch up.
- Have good eye contact and actively listen when the person is speaking.
For some, receiving gifts is the ultimate way to feel appreciated. And, don’t worry, these gifts need not be expensive or even have any monetary value. What’s most important is the sentiment that goes with the gift. So, a $20 gift card to some random store may seem like a good gift, but a $5 cup of the person’s favorite coffee would be even more meaningful and a stronger way to express your appreciation.
What’s really important when it comes to speaking in this language, then, is to be purposeful and thoughtful about choosing the gifts. Food can be an easy one for people at work, buying their favorite lunch or dessert, bringing in their preferred flavor of birthday cake, picking up a mug or t-shirt with that is meaningful to the other person (such as associated with their favorite TV show, the school they went to, their sport’s team…)
Gifts can also be experienced-based, such as getting some time off after working long hours or the ability to work from home (once people actually return to the office).
Incentives, such as a bonus for landing a certain amount of new business, are especially meaningful for the person whose primary love language is gifts.
Other examples of how to “speak” in the gift-giving love language at work include:
· Forwarding an article that you think would be of interest to them.
· A holiday gift.
- Taking someone out to lunch.
- Baking something sweet to celebrate or commiserate.
- Offering a token of appreciation, such as “Employee of the month”
- Share office supplies when they are running low.
- Bringing in the person’s favorite beverage.
- Brining back a token of interest from somewhere you traveled (when people start traveling again)
Acts of service
For the person whose primary love language is acts of service, they will feel most appreciated when someone does something to help them or make their job easier in some way. As a manager who wants to communicate in this modality, it is vital that you not micromanage. However, helping your employee prioritize tasks, offering to review a proposal before it is sent out or even offering to re-delegate certain tasks can be very meaningful.
If you are a colleague or employee, you could support your team member or boss by submitting an assignment before the deadline if that would be helpful to the other person or pick up the slack when someone is on vacation or out sick.
In speaking this language, realize that anything you can do to ease the burden of responsibilities of the other person speaks volumes.
Of course, you want to make sure that what you are doing is helpful and not causing more work or stress, so be sure to ask before you help them. And, while you may have your own approach, when engaging in acts of service, make sure you complete the task the way the other persons prefers.
Additional ways to speak in acts of service at work include:
- Working after hours to help someone complete a project.
- Asking “What can I do to help you?”
- Offering feedback on a written document or presentation.
- Offering to assist with tasks you know the person doesn’t really enjoy.
- Proactively asking how you can best support someone who is going on vacation.
For people with this primary love language, physical touch is how they hear appreciation. Of course, in the work setting, this can be a challenge to ensure appropriateness. And how one defines “appropriate” can depend on personal preferences and cultural norms as well as other factors.
With concerns about sexual harassment and now COVID, this love language can be difficult at work. However, examples of what may be viewed as appropriate include a high-five or fist-bump. In a world sans COVID, a handshake to say hello or goodbye or pat on the back to communicate congratulations. The key is to always seek consent. And, if you are not sure, then look for another love language to use. Most people have a primary and secondary preferred love language, so, in the work setting, it might be best to avoid much physical touch.
When considering love languages, realize they can cross over. For example, a cup of favorite coffee would be meaningful to someone whose primary love language is gifts or acts of service. And a handwritten thank you note can be a way to express appreciation via words of affirmation or gifts.
Speaking in other’s love language is certainly important for a boss to share with an employee. However, using the other person’s love language is actually a great way to enhance any relationship: boss, team member, client, customer…
How do you know what other people’s love language at work is? In addition to asking them to take the assessment,you can also watch them. You see, people tend to speak in their preferred love language. So the person who freely offers kind words, “Great job!” most likely values words of affirmation, and the person who brings in the birthday cakes for others probably appreciates gifts.
Still not sure? Research tells us that, when it comes to work the most common primary love languages are gifts (at 33%) words of affirmation (32%).
It is important to use the person’s love language on a regular basis. Because it is so meaningful to the other person, speaking in their love language can help enhance your relationship, which can translate into better work outcomes.
So go out there and start spreading some love and appreciate for people at work! It will help them- and you- feel even better.
Moody, G. (2019, March 16). 5 love languages. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from https://www.5lovelanguages.com/5-love-languages/