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November 20, 2018

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The Forgotten Language All Effective Leaders Must Learn



Most employees across the world today don’t feel valued at work. Supervisors know that their team members are “doing more with less”, feeling stressed, unmotivated and many times, are approaching burnout.

Predominately, monetary incentives, increments and promotions have been a common way of recognising staff. However, in today’s challenging financial climate, raises and other forms of financial compensation have been held to a minimum.

As a result, supervisors and managers are feeling stuck when it comes to knowing how to support their employees and rewarding them for their hard work. There is a “forgotten language” managers need to learn to speak again- the language of appreciation.

True appreciation must be communicated regularly, in the language that is important to the recipient, and it must be personal and authentic. Most recognition programmes sadly do not result in employees feeling valued for their contributions.

The State of Employee Engagement

Based on the Gallup Business Journal, 7 Jan 2016, “The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis”, the Gallup Daily tracking of Employee Engagement reported that only 32% of US employees are engaged; in which they give meaning to their work and are enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. In contrast, only 13% of worldwide employees working for an organisation are engaged.


As reported in The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2014 “Singapore Staff not engaged at work”, the ratio of "disengaged Singapore workers" was 76% and it was one of the highest disengaged workers in the world.

Furthermore, the ratio of "engaged Singapore workers" was 9% in comparison to the global average of 13%. These findings of a highly-disengaged Singapore workforce undermine the company productivity and performance.


Many companies have recognition programmes in place, but the challenge is to know what actions hit the mark and effectively communicate appreciation to a team member.

Dr. Paul White co-wrote The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman (best-selling author of The Five Love Languages) in part to solve this dilemma. In the book, they identify five languages, and then give action steps for each one. The languages of appreciation are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Tangible Gifts, and Physical Touch.


Each person has a primary and secondary language of appreciation. Our primary language communicates more deeply to us than the others. Although we will accept appreciation in all five languages, we will not feel truly encouraged unless the message is given through our primary language.


When messages are sent repeatedly in ways outside of that language, the intent of the message misses the mark, loses the impact the sender had hoped for, and as a result, wastes the time and energy invested by the supervisor.

Jasmine Liew is a Global Premiere Partner for The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace and is an experienced HR and Organisation Development Practitioner with several industries. One reason Jasmine was drawn to the languages of appreciation is that they address the felt needs that many recognition programmes do not and how effectively it can enhance employee engagement.


Employee Recognition Programmes Aren’t Working

With reference to Gallup Business Journal, 28 June 2016, “Employee Recognition- Low Cost and High Impact”, only one in three workers in the U.S. strongly agree that they received recognition or praise for doing good work in the past seven days.

It is also common for employees to feel that their best efforts are ignored or underappreciated by their Leaders and Managers.

It could also be a situation where Leaders and Managers have been busy to show appreciation, taken their co-workers for granted or they do not have the know how to show authentic, personalised and effective appreciation.


Why the Negative Responses to Recognition?

Even though most employee recognition activities are well-intentioned, they actually often lead to negative results.

As a psychologist and consultant, Dr. White has assisted numerous businesses, non-profit organisations, and government agencies to create more positive environments for their staff. But, when asked about their employee recognition programmes, the most common responses range from apathy (“Yea, we have one -- I think”) to cynicism (one employee stated bluntly, “They don’t give a rip about me; they just do this to try to make themselves look good.”) or the recognition is focused primarily on a small number of employees who are outstanding high performers.


These negative responses come from a variety of factors:

  • The generic approach of “One size fits all” Employee Recognition Programmes -- when everyone gets the same certificate, corporate gift or gift card--makes it feel impersonal.

  • Ninety percent of all recognition programmes primarily recognise tenure of service, which does little to motivate staff who are new joiners and staff with lesser tenure of service.

  • Recognition programmes in the form of “Best Sales Team” or “Employee of the Year or the Month” which tend to focus on the high performers (usually the top 10-20%), while the majority of employees receive no recognition although they also contributed to the organisation.

  • The practice of giving recognition in front of a group is uncomfortable for many people. Our research has found that 30-40% of employees do not want to go up in front of a large group to be recognised.

  • Most recognition programmes heavily emphasise tangible rewards—plaques, certificates, gift cards, and small tokens. While most people don’t mind receiving gifts, only 10% of employees cite receiving rewards as their preferred method of being appreciated.


Feeling Appreciated is Critical

Why is feeling appreciated so important in a work setting? Because each of us wants to know that what we are doing matters especially if we receive appreciation from our leaders who valued our contributions.

A global survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group of over 200,000 individuals found that the number one reason cited by employees who enjoy their work was: “I feel genuinely appreciated at this company”.

Without a sense of being valued by supervisors and colleagues, employees start to feel like a commodity or that they are being used merely to produce business results.

When employees do not feel valued, the negative results are predictable.



  • start to call in “sick” more frequently and/or show up late for work more often;

  • become demotivated and the quality of their work declines (as do patient satisfaction ratings);

  • complain more about their work, their colleagues, and their supervisor;

  • spread negativity that affect the workplace working environment

  • become emotionally detached and start to search for other employment opportunities.

Misconceptions about Appreciation

Communicating appreciation is not the same as giving a passing compliment or encouraging people to say “thank you” more.

A superficial approach doesn’t work and creates resentment and cynicism. The goal is not to just “go through the motions” but to communicate authentic appreciation for the value each team member contributes to the practice.


Core Conditions for Appreciation

In our work with organisations across the world, we have found four conditions that need to be present for team members to feel truly appreciated.


1. Appreciation is communicated regularly.

What does regularly mean? It varies depending on the work setting, the frequency of interaction between co-workers, and the nature of the relationship.

However, it clearly implies more than once a year at a performance review or only when someone receives a “Staff Member of the Month” award.

You can also communicate appreciation to the co-workers effectively by being more timely especially when you observe that the co-workers have a positive attitude and demonstrate good behaviours that lead to beneficial outcomes.


2. Appreciation is communicated through language and actions important to the recipient.

Most of us communicate appreciation through actions we value, but those actions may not be meaningful to our team members. Some people value words of affirmation, while others are encouraged when someone helps them with a task.


Spending time to listen to issues and giving co-workers the attention is another way to demonstrate support.


One scheduler reported, “I just want my supervisor to stop by my office every once in a while, and see how I’m doing.”

Bringing a cup of coffee to your team member or colleague when you know the person had worked late last night can be a pick me up. Even a celebratory high-five or a fist bump when a difficult project has been completed can be valuable.


3. Appreciation is personal and individualised.

Recognition of a group effort is a good start (“our patient satisfaction ratings are up”), but if the appreciation doesn’t relate to how an individual team member contributed to the task, the communication can fall flat.


People want to hear about what they have done—that you appreciate them for having done a great job, putting in effort and demonstrating positive traits such as being proactive and responsible.


You can also explain to the team members how they have practised the organisation’s core values through their actions and outcomes. For instance, you can appreciate them for being “Customer Oriented” as they remained calm and empathetic while serving a difficult customer. It could also be “Teamwork” as you noticed them providing assistance to a new employee learning the computer billing system.

In this way, appreciation becomes more specific and purposeful as co-workers understand what they have done well and how their attitude and behaviour have made a significant impact.


4. Appreciation feels authentic.

If the recipient does not believe the appreciation is genuine, nothing else really matters. What makes appreciation seem inauthentic? Teams we’ve worked with mentioned these factors:

  • A person’s tone of voice, facial expressions and negative body language don’t seem to match their words.

  • How a person relates to you in front of others differs from how they interact with you privately.

  • A past relational conflict hasn’t been addressed.

  • The person offering the praise appears to have an ulterior motive.

How do you get past people’s perception that you don’t truly value them? There is no magic bullet. But the best course of action is to repeatedly and regularly communicate appreciation in the language and actions important to your team members about the specific actions or character qualities that you value. Over time, you may be able to convince them that you truly mean what you are saying.


Creating a Culture of Appreciation

Appreciation has the most positive effect on workplace culture when both team members and supervisors offer it.

A top-down approach does not work as well as an “any-direction” model. We have consistently been told by team members that they want to know how to encourage one another, as well as receive appreciation from their supervisor.

Additionally, we argue against implementing a system-wide, mandated appreciation programme. If all staff are told that everyone will be trained to communicate appreciation, that edict automatically undermines the perception of authenticity of any appreciation communicated.


We recommend that the concepts of authentic appreciation be shared and supervisors are given the resources to apply the concepts to their work group, if they choose. For example, having each team member take our Motivating by Appreciation Inventory that identifies their preferred ways of receiving appreciation is an excellent starting point.


Our experience has shown that true, significant change does occur in workplaces when the right people (which could mean anyone, regardless of position) implement the right actions (that is, authentic actions) at the right time (when people choose to and have the desire to engage in the process). Then the benefits of people feeling truly valued for their contributions to the practice will be seen – positive interactions, less conflict, and improved results toward your organisation’s goals.


This article was first posted on Engagerocket.


About The Authors

Dr Paul Write is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.


Jasmine Liew is a Global Premiere Partner for The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace and is an experienced HR and Organisation Development Practitioner with several industries. If you are keen to find out more about how you can apply The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, please contact Jasmine Liew, our Global Premiere Partner at, or go to

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