Isn’t it funny how work relationships are sometimes compared to a marriage, like “married to work” or he’s my “work husband”? Sort’ve makes sense, though: you spend a lot of time with your co-workers, and engage in emotional activities like celebrating big wins and debating the best approach to a problem. (We like to call this “sparring.”)

It turns out, marriage advice applies to a lot of workplace relationships. Two smart authors with backgrounds in anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, found that appreciation is a key part of healthy relationships in the household and the office. In their book, “5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,” Dr. Paul White and Dr. Gary Chapman share five “languages” to show appreciation in the workplace: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and a modified version of physical touch.

Showing appreciation for your employees yields high dividends. Employees who feel appreciated are more productive, more engaged, and less likely to leave the company. Unfortunately, leaders, particularly in tech, are not known for their high emotional intelligence (EQ). There’s the myth of the lone genius, the “brilliant-but-unbearable” founder, and the assumption that technical skills trump people skills. But it’s just that: a myth.

Harvard Business Review shared results from a study of 195 leaders in 15 countries with 30 global organizations, which asked respondents to rate 74 qualities that they value in a leader. The answers showed that the majority of employees want their leaders to instill a sense of trust, belonging, and connection.

First, you have to understand how each team member likes to be appreciated. Some people feel most valued when they have quality time with their managers, while others prefer words of affirmation. And not all types of recognition are equal. For example, very public words of affirmation can make some uncomfortable – particularly very introverted employees. Forcing these folks to stand up in a large all-hands meeting to receive an award or hear a speech about their awesomeness induces unwanted anxiety. Instead, a private thank-you note or email might be just the ticket for them.

In many cases, your employees can self-identify their “language” when each is described. If you have a regular team or 1:1 meeting with your direct reports, let them know you want to incorporate appreciation. Share the descriptions of each language and ask them to think about which language resonates with them. In fact, you can use these free resources, including definitions and research, to get the conversation started.

Or, you can use the official MBA Inventory to confirm which language of appreciation is most applicable to each team member. (Note that the languages of appreciation should be used in conjunction with fair compensation, health benefits, etc., and not used as a substitute for money, vacation policies, or flexible work arrangements.)

Once you know how to make each employee feel appreciated, it’s time to put it into practice!

Words of affirmation

This language is most common in the workplace, and includes verbal or written praise. But there’s a catch: the praise must be sincere and specific. Instead of saying, “Good job,” and leaving it at that, use the situation-behavior-impact method.

Try this: “During the last sprint, you went above and beyond by logging and fixing 20% more bugs to ensure that working code shipped on time. I appreciate your attention to detail and dedication to quality.”

Quality time

This language is about spending time with your direct reports and giving them your undivided attention. Undivided is the key here. Turn your meeting notifications off and close your laptop. Make eye contact and practice active listening.

Try this: Keep your regularly-scheduled one-on-one meeting, review projects with your direct report in a timely manner, and grab coffee to talk about long-term career growth and aspirations.

Acts of service

This language is about pitching in and helping out, especially during crunch time. Some employees enjoy working alongside their managers, and feeling like their manager is down in the trenches with the rest of the team. The concept of the servant leader is well known in business, and goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence and building trust. While it’s important to all team members, some individuals place additional importance on acts of service from their leader.

Try this: Stay late to help finish invoices during the busy end-of-year season, take a rotation in the on-call schedule, or take a few tasks from the weekly checklist.


Just like external relationships, some people really feel joy in receiving gifts. And this doesn’t mean flowers or a new set of awesome headphones, necessarily. It can mean information or links to interesting articles, too. The goal is to show your employee that you’re thinking of them. Many companies attempt to do this on a large scale, with perks like ping pong tables and craft beer on tap, but these efforts can fall flat if they aren’t personalized to the employee.

Try this: At Atlassian, we have a system called “kudos”, which allows managers and peers to give a token of appreciation to their colleagues. These tokens could be gift cards to their favorite coffee shop, a bottle of wine, or a donation to their favorite charity.

Physical touch

This one gets a little dicey in the workplace, and few people select this language as their preference for feeling appreciated. But, used sparingly and appropriately, it can be a great way to build rapport and show appreciation for your team. It’s extremely important to ask before engaging in physical touch, and to be aware of body language that suggests a colleague is uncomfortable with being touched.

Try this: Offer high-fives, a solid handshake, and occasionally, even a hug. All of these actions can help build human connections.

Many leaders focus on strategic decisions and priority-setting for projects and tasks. While these elements are an important part of company and team success, nurturing your biggest asset – the people – is the key to a long and bright future. As you assess your priorities, actions, and resources for the coming year, allocate time for appreciation. You’ll be happy you did.


Want more practical ways to show appreciation and build trust? Check out this handy article from one of our senior engineering leaders.

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That time marriage advice helped me manage my team