Practicing the Workplace "Love Languages"

By Amir Ghannad
Photo by Brett Jordan on  Unsplash

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Have you ever tried to do something nice for someone, only to be disappointed in how they received it? Perhaps you went out of your way to express your gratitude or demonstrate that you care about and value them, only to receive a lukewarm response, as if it didn’t quite hit the spot for them. I think it’s safe to say that we have all experienced this every now and then. While this can definitely be discouraging when it happens in our personal lives, even the fear of such a response keeps us from taking our work relationships to that next level, instead keeping many of us at the level of “transactionships” alone. Well the good news is that there are ways to take your communication and relationships to that next level, both in your personal life and at work, and that’s what I want to talk about in this post.

Several years ago, I was exposed to two teachings that opened my eyes to how I could have an even better relationship with the people who were closest to me, at work and at home. The first was Dr. Gary Chapman’s writings on the “5 Love Languages,” and the subsequent discussions that led to my wife and I clearly understanding each other’s preferred love language so we could become proficient in them. The second was a course called “Sex at Work,” which, contrary to how it sounds, was a series of lessons on the implications of gender diversity at work. Both of these works reinforced the central message that making someone feel loved, or valued in the case of work colleagues, is not a one-size-fits-all game, and that we often fall into the trap of assuming that what motivates us or makes us happy will have the same effect on others. We treat others as we want to be treated, which works very well when it comes to the virtues that we all value, but not so well when our preferences vary. What we ought to be doing is treating others as they want to be treated!

Both of these teachings also emphasize the fact that communication is not a one-way street. Everyone, especially if they consider themselves a leader, has a responsibility to not just communicate clearly, but communicate in such a way that their message lands with the listener as they intended. So, effective communication requires us to constantly change our approach to match the listener we are addressing according to their preferences. Really, this is what the “love languages” are: different modalities in which we prefer people to express their care and concern to us. All of us appreciate it more when someone communicates with us in a way that matches our preference, because that alone shows that the other person respects and values us enough to put us before themselves. And if you take the “language” metaphor a little further, you can see why learning the other person’s preferred form of communication is so important. When you go to another country, if you want to be understood, you don’t require that everyone else learn your language; rather, you take on learning their language so that you can communicate effectively with the people there. In many cases, refusing to even attempt do so is seen as rude or arrogant, and in all cases, it is completely counter-productive if you want anyone understand what you’re saying!

When it comes to leadership and engagement, these same principles apply to organizations, perhaps even more so than in our personal lives. While everybody wants to be trusted, treated fairly, respected, and so on, what makes us tick and what has the greatest impact on us often differs from one person to another. This is why learning each person’s workplace “love language” and using it effectively has a profound effect on employee engagement, and is an indispensable skill that every leader must strive to practice.

By now, just about everybody is practicing some sort of personalized marketing when it comes to customers. From the grocery stores that collect data on the shoppers and send them coupons for the items they regularly purchase, to the intel that is collected on social media so you get ads for weeks about what you just Googled a few minutes ago. If we are so eager to cater to the specific needs and desires of our clients, most of whom we maintain only transactionships with, wouldn’t it make sense to find out and act on the preferences of our employees, who by the way, are the ones serving our clients?!

Of course, this is being done in a variety of ways in different places. I came across one company a few years back who kept a database on each employee, which was partly filled out by the employee and partly populated by others who found out about the employee’s preferences. They had information like the employee’s favorite store, so when and if they wanted to recognize the employee and reward them with a gift card, they would give them a gift card from their favorite store. This actually isn’t a bad approach, but it would probably need to be done in a close-knit, high trust workplace, or some people might have misgivings about a “1984”-style database of their personal preference and it possibly being abused.

For people working in a (national) culture other than their own, one way to show that they care about others is to take the time to understand and abide by the local traditions, or at least be sure not to commit acts that signify total disregard for their coworkers. For me, personally, I have seen that even the smallest gestures have always gone in a long way in the dozen or so countries that I have done work in. By the same token, I have seen the opposite cause irreversible damage, where “minor” faux pas on the part of people who think certain traditions aren’t a big deal or “shouldn’t” matter almost cause an international incident! While working in Thailand, I literally had to ban a highly sought-after technical resource from coming back after he repeatedly ignored the feedback on how serious an offense it was to use one’s foot to keep the door open or kick the chair someone was sitting in.

A great place to start with practicing this communication skill is to begin paying attention to what the people around you value most, and then serve it up every chance you get. This has to be done sincerely, because you actually care about treating others in the way that they want be treated, not just so you can exploit people’s preferences to get a better response from them. Again, just like the 5 Love Languages, while everybody probably appreciates receiving a gift or hearing words of affirmation, we appreciate some gestures more than others in accordance with our preferred mode of communication. Below are a few ideas to get your started.

The most prevalent of the workplace love languages I have some across are as follows:

Appreciation and Acknowledgement – While we all want to know that our efforts are appreciated, some people are infinitely more affected by words of praise on one hand, or acts of recognition on the other.

Availability and Accessibility – Making yourself available and ensuring that people have access to you goes a long way. They may hardly ever take you up on your open door policy or the fact that they can call you if they need you, but just knowing that you are there for them makes a difference.

Information Sharing – While everyone prefers to have the information they need to do their work, some people thrive on being in the know and being the first to be let in on new information that isn’t common knowledge yet. I knew one such person for whom “breaking news” was like oxygen and I made sure that they were one of the first ones who had the scoop on what was going on, even if it was just a few minutes before others found out.

Challenge – Some people thrive on being given a challenge. Otherwise, they get bored and feel underutilized, or maybe even undervalued and disrespected. Giving them the opportunity to tackle some of the greatest challenges that the organization faces is a win-win proposition for everyone.

Development Opportunities – Here again, while everyone would appreciate the opportunity to grow, some are much more energized by being given the opportunity to lead an initiative or attend a class that will help them grow and expand their influence.

Interest in their personal life – This one is not for everyone. Some people would prefer to keep their personal affairs private and not necessarily discuss what they have going on at home with people at work. However, for those who appreciate that you care enough about them as a whole person to remember their kids’ names and ask them about the specific things that are going on in their lives, this hits the spot.

Solicitation of opinions – When you go the extra mile to specifically ask someone’s opinion about something and then listen, it says something about how much you value them. For some, this intentional inclusion, if nothing else, means the world to them.

To reiterate a point, I must stress identifying and practicing the workoplace love languages must be done authentically and with the genuine intent to create a positive experience. That can never be effectively done if your motive is to manipulate and use any of this as a strategy to get what you want, because people can sense that a mile away. If you are sincere in your attempts, however, even if you don’t get things perfect, people will appreciate the fact that you are even trying and give you the benefit of the doubt.

I’m sure you can think of many other ways in which to make others feel valued, but rather than getting overwhelmed with figuring out the countless ways in which you can approach this, start with the categories mentioned above. Begin to figure out which ones apply to the people you work with, by observing how they prefer to receive communication and acknowledgement. You can always build on this when you get a few wins under your belt.

Thanks for reading this post all the way through, I hope it made a difference for you! I just want to let all my followers and readers know that some big changes are coming to the blog and the website this summer. My team and I are very excited about what we have planned, and we know our community of readers and followers will be too! I can’t wait to share the news with you, so make sure you keep up with me on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Amir is a leadership development specialist, culture transformation catalyst, and the founder of The Ghannad Group, a consultancy that specializes in guiding leaders in creating extraordinary cultures that deliver breakthrough results and unprecedented fulfillment. A widely recognized authority in the field of organizational development and a highly sought-after keynote speaker at leadership summits in the US and abroad, Amir has long been a trusted advisor and coach to top level executives in multiple industries and locations around the world. Find out more about Amir here


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