One Size Does Not Fit All: The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Paul White

In today’s employment landscape where there are more jobs requiring special skills than there are applicants to fill them, employee retention is the name of the game. The process of finding and hiring the right people can be frustrating and time-consuming, and only compounded when a well-qualified employee quits. The fact is, employees do not really quit companies—they quit people. It is the relationships an employee builds within an organization that are the real defining factor as to whether that employee stays put or goes off in search of greener pastures. A recent global study revealed that 79% of employees leave jobs because of a lack of recognition in the workplace, not for more money or benefits as many would believe. In a new episode of Recruit and Retain Podcast: Trucking Edition, licensed psychologist and author Dr. Paul White sits down with host Chad Hendricks to discuss the ways that a culture of appreciation can be built in any workplace in order to not only retain your hard-won talent, but actually boost productivity as well.
Dr. Paul White grew up outside of Indianapolis and worked early on loading trucks at a family-owned manufacturing business. He earned a B.A. at Wheaton College located outside of Chicago, then went on to pursue a Masters at Arizona State University and finally a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University. Dr. White has devoted his career to working closely with businesses to help develop more positive workplace cultures through relationship-building. After studying the non-fiction best-seller, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and seeing the positive impact the book was having on his personal relationships, Dr. White decided to contact Chapman about a collaborative writing effort applying similar concepts to the workplace. This effort ultimately became the book The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

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Let’s face it—people are motivated when they feel valued and appreciated, but most employee recognition programs miss the mark. We’ve all seen employee-of-the-month programs and businesses that seem to begrudgingly hand out the same employee appreciation gift (I’m looking at you company logo t-shirt!) to every member of their team without any consideration as to whether anyone really wants that gift. Dr. White points out that there is a difference between recognition and appreciation. Recognition is often performance-based, one-size fits all, and comes from the top down. Appreciation is based on the person rather than performance (for example, it can be used to encourage an under-performing team member), it is tailored to the individual, and it can go in any direction— from employee to manager, CEO to employee, or peer-to-peer.
According to Dr. White’s book, appreciation is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. People feel appreciated in different ways, and what may work for one employee will not work for another. That’s why he offers an online assessment tool on his website, appreciationatwork.com. For a small fee, employers can ask team members to complete the survey and determine what actions make that employee feel most appreciated. Here’s a breakdown of each of the five appreciation languages outlined in White’s book, listed in order of commonality.
1) Words of Affirmation
While this appreciation language still ranks at the top, it actually accounts for less than 50% of employees surveyed. It is also important to remember that the words you use must be meaningful and touch on something unique to the individual. The words can be about something that happened at work, or even achievements outside the office. For example, one could praise a colleague on recently completing a marathon.
2) Quality Time
Spending time with team members outside the office is a great way to show appreciation, and a large number of people respond to this “language”. Taking time out of your day to physically check-in with a colleague or going out for a special lunch are a few examples of how to do this. For remote team members, this can be accomplished by frequently checking in with that person. White encourages employers and team members to include a video component when working with remote employees.
3) Acts of Service
White cautions that this appreciation language should not be used to rescue a low-performing employee by taking on work for that person. Rather, acts of service can be used to support someone through a rough or busy patch—grabbing lunch for someone when her day is jam-packed, or dropping something at the post office for a colleague since it’s on your way home. The way to determine the right acts of service is often just to ask the colleague what you can do that would be most helpful.
4) Tangible Gifts
Shockingly, this appreciation language ranks somewhat low on the list, especially when you consider how many employers rely on gifts to show appreciation. Another surprise is that people feel most valued when they receive small, meaningful gifts rather than big-ticket items. A few examples include team memorabilia for that person’s favorite sports team, or a gift card that can be used for a special interest or hobby like Bass Pro Shop for the outdoorsman or Starbucks for the caffeine junkie.
5) Physical Touch
White admits he debated as to whether to include this one on the list. However, the fact remains that some people do feel most valued when they receive a pat on the back, handshake, fist-bump, or other form of physical touch. Just make sure to keep to work-appropriate!

White has travelled the country setting up appreciation programs in businesses both large and small, and he has found that the keys to success for such programs in any workplace are consistency and authenticity. He suggests identifying and assembling team members who can act as cheerleaders for other employees and advocates for an appreciation program as a pilot group. The program can then be expanded over time. Building a authentic culture of appreciation will not happen overnight, so patience and commitment are essential. Team members should aim to show appreciation to colleagues on a regular basis in order to build a habit. To find out more, visit Dr. White’s website, or pick up his book The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

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