The Way We Fail at Work with our Words and our Gifts

Expressing love at work may seem like a little too much.  But in reality, showing love is really showing people you care.  It isn’t about recognizing people’s accomplishments, it’s about appreciating people for who they are. 

When we are talking about love at work, we are really talking about how to show people you appreciate them.  We talked about how to apply quality time as a love language at work on the blog last week. Quality time is a love language that is sometimes hard to know how to apply to work, but the love languages that are most and least desired in terms of frequency of those who have completed the Motivating by Appreciation (MBA) Inventory assessment-a tool to assess showing appreciation through the love languages at the office- are two of the most frequently used forms of showing appreciation at the office. 

But are we applying these two love languages correctly? 

The most frequently used method of showing appreciation at the office is tangible gifts, yet it is the least frequently desired.  The employee recognition industry is a multi-billion dollar one.  But according to research cited in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, “Only 6% of employees choose tangible gifts as their primary language, and 68% report it is their least valued appreciation language.” 

The most desired form of showing appreciation- chosen by approximately 45% of employees surveyed through the MBA– is words of affirmation.  People wanted to feel appreciated by what you say to them. 

The fact that the most frequently used way to thank people, or to show them appreciation, is the least desired one and that the most desired is so desired one points to what I think may be wrong with showing appreciation in the workplace in general. 

We go wrong with gifts and we go wrong with words because we don’t do a good job of making them personal.   In fact, we’ve written about the best way to thank employees is to make it personal. 


The Way We Fail at Work with our Words

The way we make our words of affirmation mean nothing is by: 

  1. Not being specific. Saying, “thank you” or “atta boy” and leaving it at that.  We need to personalize our appreciation with specifics.  What did someone do or how do they consistently behave that you appreciate?
  2. We give our words in the wrong context.  Some people like public praise and some do not.  Making our words personal means knowing the right context to give them in.  Research cited in the The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace notes that 40-50% of employees do not want to receive recognition in front of a large group.  Most of the time though, words of appreciation are given in a formal setting with a large group once or twice a year at company events. 
  3. We only provide words of affirmation when performance warrants it.  Sometimes we need to praise for consistent behavior over time that is actually a reflection of someone’s character.  This still needs to be specific, but often people want to be noticed for who they are, not whether it led to an immediate result or not.  Character, in fact, is what leads to lasting results. 


The Way We Fail at Work with our Gifts

Tangible gifts are most often given to recognize people, not to show appreciation to them.   We get a watch or a plaque for our years of service, or a gift card for Christmas.  These are the types of things that make the employee recognition industry big business.  But they aren’t the things people desire. 

Gifts go wrong when: 

  1. They aren’t personal. Does everyone want a watch or a plaque?  I really don’t care to have either myself.  What actually often means the most is when a tangible gift is given that you show you know a person well enough to give them something they want.  Giving someone a gift they don’t want or value actually has a worse effect than giving no gift at all. 
  2. They are lip service to appreciation.  When everyone gets the ham for Christmas every year, do you actually feel any appreciation?  My guess would be no. Especially if you are a vegetarian.  Lip service for appreciation is usually so depersonalized. 
  3. Stuff is the focus instead of experiences.  Gifts often fail to be what people actually want in a tangible gift.  What people often want if they value gifts are really experiences, not stuff.  They want tickets to the sports game, a gift certificate to the spa, or a small getaway.  But again, be sure not to violate number one.  Don’t give me a sports tickets and don’t give my husband a trip to the spa. 


How often do you use words or gifts to show appreciation at work?  Which one do you default to and why? And do you make your words and your gifts personal?

Mary Ila Ward

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