To show recognition, try speaking a different language

The 5 Recognition Languages managers need to know to acknowledge their team.

I thought I was doing a great job showing appreciation to my team. I did everything I would want my manager to do — complimenting them for a job well done and singing their praises in public. So imagine my surprise when during our annual engagement survey, my team said they felt under-recognized!

This was many years ago, when I was a newbie manager. I had been expressing recognition the way I wanted to receive it, and well, that only gets you so far. I have since managed scores of different people with a wide variety of personalities and needs. I have come to see that people have different preferences in the way they like to be managed, receive feedback and be recognized.

In the book The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman describes the five different ways romantic partners express love. Chapman holds that while everyone wants to receive all five forms of expression (words, time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch), most people have a “primary love language” that they prefer. And when their partner isn’t using that particular language, the love can go unnoticed.

This framework (with important differences) applies to the workplace, too. Everyone wants to feel significant and appreciated, but the challenge for managers is uncovering how different individuals feel recognized. If employees don’t value the form of recognition they’re receiving, they may not think they’re getting any at all. The ramifications of this can take a massive toll on their engagement and motivation.

“69% of employees would work harder if they felt their efforts were better appreciated.” -TINYpulse Stats

As Kim Scott notes in Radical Candor (one of the best management books out there), a good manager “gives a damn.” It’s the cornerstone of trust. However, giving a damn looks different to different people. A great manager should flex their style to the context and the person. Every one has one or two languages of recognition that they crave above all others. The key to showing your direct report powerful recognition is knowing which is their primary language. As with the Love Languages, there are five.

The 5 Recognition Languages:

#1 Encouraging Words

While absolutely every employee needs to hear constructive feedback from their manager, there are some that value verbal and/or written encouragement above all other forms of recognition. These words are a demonstration of your care and support, and provide validation of their work.

It’s important that the words of encouragement you use are sincere and specific. Simply saying “good job in there” isn’t helpful. The most effective words point to a specific act and emphasize why it was impactul. This not only shows thoughtful care, it’s helpful in their growth.

Examples of Encouraging Words:

  • Sending an email to a direct report before their big presentation cheering them on.
  • Catching them in the hall after a great meeting and telling them what they did well, and what they can improve on.
  • Saying “thank you for your hard work on…”
  • Highlighting their work in front of a large group. (If they appreciate public recognition.)

#2 Tangible Rewards

For some, words are not enough as they seem to come to easily. Instead, they attribute greater value to the tangible demonstration of your appreciation, which they view as harder to come by and longer lasting. The reward doesn’t need to be massive nor monetarily based. The best rewards are thoughtful, relevant to the individual and the achievement, and useful in their work.

Please note, gifts can be tricky in the workplace. While all forms of recognition should be used with moderation, over use of Tangible Rewards is the most damaging and difficult to reverse. Ensure that your use of rewards is fair, extensible to all and, of course, legal!

Tangible Rewards look like:

  • Taking the team out to lunch after a big launch.
  • Giving them a physical talisman that they can display on their desk after reaching a key milestone (For example, Twitter gives employees a small wood block on each anniversary).
  • Making sure they take compensatory time when they worked excessively long hours to fulfill a special request.
  • Increasing their salary and/or elevating their title due to sustained impact.
  • Giving them a high five!

#3 Focused Time

Spending time with the members of your team is critical to your success as a manager. It keeps you informed about the people and the work, and provides opportunity for coaching. And your time is the greatest gift you can give to those whose primary language of recognition is Focus Time.

The quality and quantity of the time you spend can make or break their engagement. Your main priority during Focused Time is to listen and be fully present with your direct report. The attention you give shows that you value them and their work.

Focused Time looks like:

  • Reliably making it to your 1:1s where you close your computer and put your phone in your pocket.
  • Asking questions and actively listening to them about their challenges.
  • Attending their speaking engagements out of the office.
  • Swinging by their desk to check in.
  • Sending them a note to welcome them back after a vacation.

#4 Further Autonomy

Everyone wants to be self-directed, as described by Daniel Pink in the book Drive. It’s linked to their feelings of self-worth and free will. Those who see gaining Further Autonomy as their Language of Recognition, value being given space and authority to express their abilities. It’s the primary way they understand and feel your confidence in them.

The person that craves Further Autonomy is likely hungry for a challenge. While they may appreciate the other forms recognition, reaching out to these individuals too often can have negative effects and feel like nagging. These folks want to know you have faith in their ability to handle things without you.

Further Autonomy looks like:

  • Referring to them as the expert and deferring to them in their area of expertise.
  • Giving them a task above their level, noting that you think they’re ready because of their recent accomplishments or growth.
  • Letting them decide how to accomplish something.
  • Waiting for them to give an update proactively versus checking in on them.
  • Having them be the spokesperson for the company in an article about their team’s work.

#5 Visible Impact

We all want to know we’re having an impact and that our time and effort is well spent. Those whose primary language is Visible Impact are motivated by the effect of their work on their audience. Telling these folks how great their work is, or throwing money at them, without helping them see their impact will be ineffective.

These folks care less about what you may have to say and are more interested in the scale of change they helped to create. Your job is to help them see this. They want to know who was affected and what the impact of the work was. They want to see the world come closer to their vision and care a lot about how much they ship.

Visible Impact looks like:

  • Putting them in the shoes of the customer to help them feel the improvements they made first-hand.
  • Putting them in a position to hear directly from the audience impacted by their work.
  • Sharing metrics that reflect the first and second order results of the work.
  • Connecting them with people in and outside the company that want to learn from their work.
  • Helping them see the connections between their work and the broader vision.

In summary

People like to receive a mix of all five languages of recognition. And a good manager has all five in their toolkit. However a great manager knows which one is most meaningful for each individual they manage.

We typically assume people want what we want, but as with The 5 Love Languages, this is a red herring. Don’t assume. Ask! Ask them in a way that helps them discover the answer for themselves:

  • Describe a time when you felt recognized for your work?
  • If you were a manager, how would you help your team know when they’ve done well?
  • How will you know when you have delivered great work?

Everyone deserves to feel valued and appreciated for doing great work. The key is understanding variance in preferences and adjusting your style to have greater impact. Knowing your direct reports’ primary language of recognition will help you flex your style and deliver effective recognition to better motivate your team.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found this helpful and I look forward to your comments.

And thank you, Meg Robichaud, for help with the illustrations! I appreciate you :-)