The traditional Golden Rule, taught by many cultures and religions, is “do unto others as you would have done unto you”. However, the Golden Rule for leaders should be: “do unto others as they would have done unto them”. Leaders need to remain cognizant that each of their direct reports is unique, with different needs and motivations. One of these needs is appreciation.

Appreciation and recognition are often used interchangeably to describe the same thing but are, in fact, different. Recognition refers to providing positive feedback based on a team member’s performance, outcomes or results in the form of praise, an award, raise, promotion and so forth. Appreciation is about acknowledging an individual’s inherent value; appreciating them for who they are and what they contribute to the team.

When appreciating their team members, leaders can fall into a pattern of showing appreciation to everyone the same way – often the way they themselves would have preferred. However, in the matter of appreciation, it is important to apply the Leadership Golden Rule and appreciate people how they would like to be appreciated.

In our remote working world, maintaining a social connection between the leader and their team and among team members is crucial for team success. Research firm, CCS Insights, found that, in 2020, 33% of employees rated feeling disconnected from colleagues/lack of social interaction as their biggest challenge with remote work. Authentic appreciation is a fundamental part of social connection. It is also a driver of employee experience and engagement. A survey by Glassdoor, reported on by Harvard Business Review (2019), found that 53% of respondents said feeling more appreciation from their manager would help them stay at their company longer. However, 68% of respondents indicated their manager already shows them enough appreciation. This shows that we need to appreciate our people more than just the minimum “enough” and rather in the way that is most meaningful to them.

Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages have been used in a variety of relationship types, including work relationships. These are called “appreciation languages” in a work setting and provide a useful framework for understanding authentic appreciation. Before diving into the appreciation languages, it is important to understand some foundational principles for showing appreciation at work:


  • We are all different and thus prefer different ways to be appreciated.
  • Appreciation is most impactful when shown frequently in a personalised, authentic
  • Appreciation does not need to be big or flashy – small actions are more important since life is lived out on a daily basis.
  • Appreciation should be specific. For example, if the person’s appreciation language is words of affirmation, telling them “Great job!” is very generic and, thus, far less meaningful than “Your presentation was well-prepared and helped win the client’s trust. Thank you for your efforts.” The more specific you are, the more likely your act of appreciation will be received as genuine.
  • It’s not about hierarchy. Appreciation should not just be from the leader towards the team, but among team members as well. Research has found that, while employees crave appreciation from their leader, they also want to feel valued by their colleagues. This is important. It means that, regardless of your position, you can lead efforts to bring about a more appreciative culture on your team, including by showing appreciation to your leader! (Appreciation at Work, 2021)

With these principles in mind, what are the appreciation languages? For each appreciation language, we will look at the typical profile of a person who prefers to be appreciated via this language and how to deliver this appreciation in an in-person and remote work setting.

  1. Words of Affirmation

These people prefer verbal or written thanks, affirmation or compliments to know they are appreciated.

How to do this?

In person, you can compliment a person’s new haircut or thank them for their efforts to complete a report within a tight deadline. In remote work, you can give similar compliments and thanks via video or phone calls. You can also send a message on your team WhatsApp group or a team email.

Some individuals hold the belief that “everyone is paid to do their jobs, we’re not here to be thanked”. Yes, your colleague or direct report is paid for their job, but complimenting or thanking them can increase their motivation and engagement at work.

Go ahead and thank people but remember that, though words of affirmation are the most commonly desired form of appreciation, they are not the only form. “Research with over 100,000 employees found that over 50% want to be appreciated in ways other than words.” (Appreciation at Work, 2021).

  1. Quality Time

These people want your focused time and attention; to feel like you want to get to know them at a personal level, beyond just work.

How to do this?

In person, you can have a one-on-one check-in with them over coffee or lunch. Start your team meetings by asking what people did over the weekend or with fun questions about what they wanted to be as a child or about their dream holiday destination. In remote work, you can do virtual one-on-one check-ins, implement the fun questions in your virtual team meetings or pop off a quick WhatsApp asking: “How are you doing this week?”


  1. Acts of Service

This kind of person cares less about you thanking them or spending personal time with them. They want to know you will show up when it counts and help ease their work responsibilities when necessary.

How to do this?

In person or remotely, this includes situations like offering to reprioritise some of your work in order to assist a colleague who is facing pressures in their personal life (such as a sick child or planning a wedding) or offering to review a colleague’s presentation when they indicate they are nervous about pitching to a new client.

  1. Receiving Gifts

These people prefer receiving appreciation through small gifts or tokens that show thought and effort from the giver.

How to do this?

In person, this can be as simple as making tea or coffee for the person when you get up for a tea break or buying their favourite snack to share. On cultural occasions where gifts are given, it is important to a person with this appreciation style. So, small gifts on their birthday or religious holidays will make them feel appreciated. In remote work, you can consider sending the person a joke or meme, a recent TED talk you’ve watched or an article you’ve read which you know they would enjoy. Though they are not tangible, these are gifts of your time and effort towards that person.

  1. Physical Presence

These people prefer to be appreciated through in-person interactions or gestures. Their appreciation style, therefore, may have a lot of overlaps with quality time, acts of service, or receiving gifts.

How to do this?

In person, you can make use of corona virus-friendly forms of greeting such as fist pumps or elbow bumps. Physical greetings do require you to consider various factors such as the genders of those participating (not to have any perceptions of sexual harassment arise), culture, age, and comfort. However, if the person has indicated that they like hugs or handshakes and both are fully vaccinated, this can also be an option. Physical presence is contrary to a remote working environment, but you could use other appreciation languages such as virtual one-on-one check-ins to simulate a sense of physical presence.

Why should you do this?

Appreciating people the way they want to be appreciated creates a positive team and organisational culture which, in turn, shapes the ideal employee experience. Organisations that prioritise the employee experience have “four times higher average profits, two times higher average revenues, and 40 per cent lower turnover” and outperform in share prices (Morgan, 2017).

We encourage you to start today. Ask each of your team members to complete the test to find out their appreciation languages. The test for the workplace context does have a cost, so you can use the free test for adult singles with questions similar to those for workplace relationships. Set up a team meeting to ask each team member their preferred appreciation languages. Start showing appreciation – from leader to team members, team to leader and among peers on the team – and reap the benefits.

By Elizabeth Ross


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