By Karl Moore
One of the most down-to-earth and helpful approaches to feedback to consider adding to your repertoire is one that I have taught to hundreds of managers in new manager courses: The Five Languages of Appreciation.
Originally developed for use with families, Gary Chapman and Paul White applied the five languages of love in their book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, to work. They argue that there are five key ways to express appreciation for your people, or others in the workplace. There may very well be a sixth or seventh, but these five seem to cover 95% of the territory and, after all, five is a number that our minds can easily remember.
Some years ago, Nicolay Worren, then a doctoral student of mine at Oxford University, Richard Elliot, and I wrote an article that argued that from the viewpoint of our cognitive abilities, four or five are numbers that are particularly helpful for remembering frameworks — Think of Porters’ Five Forces or the many two-by-two matrixes that McKinsey and BCG turn out on a regular basis. Two or three factors are not enough to begin to express the complexity of life, but on the other hand, it is hard to remember 8,9, 10 factors. Remember how long it took you to memorize the 12 months of the year as a kid.
The five ways of expressing appreciation are: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Tangible Gifts and Physical Touch. Let me explain each briefly in turn.
Words of Affirmation entails saying words that let the person know they have done something valuable. However, just throwing out the occasional “Good work!” won’t suffice. If you want to be effective with words of affirmation, be specific. Just saying “Great job!” every time someone performs well will lose its effect over time, being a vague statement so easily used. Picking out a specific part of someone’s performance makes praise meaningful. Show that you were paying attention to what matters: “I know that those figures were challenging and complex. You did a great job of making them understandable.” or “I really appreciate the extra effort you’ve been making to coach the new employee; her accuracy has improved dramatically with your help.”
Quality Time entails listening to the person, rather than talking, and letting them express their ideas at length. In my experience, simply having coffee with the person and just giving them your undivided attention, something all too rare in this world, is a great way to reach those that desire Quality Time. As a pretty extroverted person, this is a thing that I particularly learned from more introverted people, who are often better listeners.
Acts of Service appeal to those who think, “Talk is cheap – why don’t you actually do something?” So, when my secretary is overloaded, I might say, “Don’t worry about it. I see you are swamped, I’ll do it myself.” Physically taking on a task, and perhaps alleviating that work from someone else, shows you recognize the amount of work they do and that you value them — By actually doing something!
Giving Tangible Gifts is not about the cost of the gift, but is more of a display that you thought of the person and bought something you knew they would appreciate. Those that respond to Tangible Gifts are by no means necessarily materialistic — It could be as simple as bringing your office mate the new muffin from Tim Hortons because you knew he wanted to try it. My mother appreciated receiving a postcard from her son when he traveled, even though she would see him before the postcard would arrive. It was the proof that he was thinking of her that mattered.
Finally, of the five, there is Appropriate Physical Touch. In a family context, this makes perfect sense. At work, one must be careful. A high five, a fist bump, a two-handed handshake is generally acceptable in the Western world. In some cultures, such as Montreal for example, touch is more generally accepted than in Toronto, which is only an hour’s flight away. In Montreal, people will often greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, something largely not done in Toronto. In the workplace, simply placing your hand on a shoulder, or a pat on the back may resonate with those that respond to Physical Touch that they are appreciated or doing a good job. Though after two years of a pandemic, even in Montreal, we are still more fist-bumping than anything else.
I have taught this idea to well over a thousand people, mostly managers. There is a fairly even spread over which of the five people tend to prefer. An important point is that we tend to show the aspect that we personally prefer towards others because it’s the one we’re the best at giving. The shortcoming is that if we wish to express appreciation to one of our people, it is best done in the language which they most appreciate receiving, for it will have the most impact. Therefore, as a good manager (and a good parent and spouse), I must learn to speak all five languages of appreciation. It’s a simple idea, but according to many of the managers I have taught, a powerful one. Once you are able to stretch yourself to be able to give feedback in all five ways, you’re also establishing that your company is a community of human beings, each one being unique and needing to be appreciated differently.
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