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Why your employee recognition program isn’t working

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Maybe you’ve heard of The 5 Love Languages®. Developed by Dr. Gary Chapman, the premise is that we all give and receive love in different ways—acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, gifts, or quality time. 

If you think of relationships you’ve been in—familial or romantic—you can probably see how this has played out. 

But lesser known is the close cousin of these love languages: The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. What Drs. Gary Chapman and Paul White found is that just as people express love differently, they offer and receive appreciation in different ways. Meaning you might be offering your employees recognition through shout-outs or gifts—yet they don’t recognize those efforts as appreciation.

What’s a manager to do?

First, you have to understand the five languages of appreciation in the workplace and how your employees like to be recognized. Then, be intentional about how you appreciate your employees’ hard work

Understand how your employees feel appreciated.

The following are the five languages of appreciation in the workplace:

  1. Words of affirmation
  2. Tangible gifts
  3. Acts of service
  4. Quality time
  5. Appropriate physical touch

You can determine which your employees prefer using either the MBA Inventory™—a brief assessment that pinpoints how the user primarily receives thanks—or simply by asking them how they’d like to be recognized.

Once you know your employees’ preferences, make sure to document them for future reference. Employee appreciation should happen regularly—both casually and more formally as you reach project milestones—so you’ll want to have this information handy.

Organizational values must be rewarded

Recognize your employees how they like to be recognized.

Armed with an understanding of how your employees like to be recognized, it’s time to put this knowledge into action. Here’s what that might look like:

Words of affirmation: Shout-out your employee for a job well done through workplace chat software, like Slack, or by email. Be specific in your praises (i.e., “Holly has been such an incredible addition to our team. With her strong attention to detail and ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously, she has improved our project management process and our ability to get content out the door on time. Go, Holly!” (Note to reader: Words of affirmation are free, so offer liberally. Just be sure to be specific—generic platitudes don’t go as far as genuine compliments.)

Tangible gifts: Though often what most organizations defer to, White found that only 6% of employees identify tangible gifts as their main language of appreciation. If a member of your team likes to receive gifts, consider offering a personal gift for hitting performance metrics, special occasions, and reaching milestones. Using a personalized gift service, such as Snappy, can make your gift even more meaningful—as well as provide the additional benefit of helping your employee associate their gift with the organization.

Acts of service: Your employees who value acts of service want one thing and one thing only from you: A helping hand when they’ve got a lot on their plate. Offer to make a connection, remove a blocker from a project, or lend a hand when they’re on a tight deadline, and they’ll have no doubt how much you value and appreciate them.

Quality time: While you might not think your employees would want to spend additional time with their boss, that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to employees who value quality time. These employees want more interactions with you—whether that’s in a one-on-one, a casual conversation about life and goings-on, or a team outing.

Appropriate physical touch: This is one you’ll want to clarify with both your employee and your HR department. A fist bump, high five, hand hug, or even a good old fashioned hug can mean the world to an employee whose primary appreciation language is physical touch.

A note on recognizing introverts vs. extraverts

Just as everyone prefers to be appreciated differently, your employees may have a preference of whether they receive recognition publicly or privately.

If you’re high in extraversion, you may not understand why an employee would want to be rewarded entirely under the radar. And that’s okay! Your job as a manager isn’t to be wired the same way as your employees—only to understand and honor how your employees prefer to be appreciated.

Same as with your evaluation of appreciation languages, you can determine if your employees would prefer public or private recognition either by asking them or through a behavioral assessment.

Once you know how to appreciate and reward employees, make it standard practice.

Recognition plays a key role in creating psychological safety at work. This feeling of safety allows employees to feel comfortable offering feedback, making mistakes, and sharing differing opinions.

For this reason, employee recognition shouldn’t be limited to once a quarter or the end of a big project. Consider celebrating an employee’s growth and contributions to the team in real time. Pave the way for lateral recognition by encouraging employees to recognize one another for their hard work and progress. 

How are you currently rewarding employeesand what changes might you consider making to improve your rewards and recognition process?

Everyone receives appreciation differently.

Personalize employee recognition with these 5 methods.

Organizational values must be rewarded


Shannon is a product manager at PI. She has a mirror-image twin sister—but they didn't discover this until they were 26.

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