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InfoQ Homepage Articles Applying Languages of Appreciation in Agile Teams

Applying Languages of Appreciation in Agile Teams


Key Takeaways

  • There are five languages of appreciation that we can use with others, including words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch
  • When you are aware of your own preference of language, this will help you to tell people what it is that you need to feel appreciated
  • Similarly, getting to know other people’s languages will help you to offer them appreciation in the way that will best resonate with them, leaving them feeling valued and secure in their relationship with you
  • When we use these languages to appreciate teams, it’s important that we consider two or even three ways of showing appreciation, in order to reach the greatest number of people in the team
  • Building a habit of appreciation in your teams, by using the most appropriate languages and doing this on a regular basis, will help teams to perform to the best of their ability together

Respect is one of the core values of Scrum. This can be shown in many ways, including appreciation for our team members. In this article, I will introduce the concept from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages, and consider how this applies to our working relationships.

Everyone has a primary language in which they prefer to receive appreciation, be it the words we use, acts of service from our colleagues, receiving gifts, having quality time with someone or experiencing physical touch, a much more difficult one to use in the workplace. In this article, I will take a look at how we identify the needs of our colleagues to feel supported and appreciated, and how this can be applied to appreciation in teams.

Appreciation at work

Appreciation is about valuing a person as an individual and this can be incredibly motivating for people to know that their colleagues and peers value them at work. Whatever else people enjoy from their work, knowing that they are important as an individual can have a huge impact on their engagement and their performance.

When we lack appreciation, we feel emptiness and pain. The more appreciation that we receive, the more our tank is filled up and our self-worth and significance begin to climb. When our tank is full, and kept at that level by the repeated and positive messages we receive, our value and contribution to the team is affirmed and our engagement at work soars. 

The five love languages

In his book The 5 love languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts”, Gary Chapman defines the five love languages as words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. 

Words of affirmation are the simple, straight-forward statements of support and encouragement that we use - compliments on someone’s appearance, encouragement for something new they are learning, acknowledgement of an achievement or just kind, respectful words like “please” and “thank you”.

Quality time is about giving someone your undivided attention and really listening to them, sympathetically; putting time aside in your day to devote all of your focus on them; taking someone for a coffee to let them vent or calling them up to see how they are today, and really listening to what they say.

Receiving gifts sounds straightforward but it’s important to remember that it’s the thought, not the value, of the gift that’s important here. It’s choosing a gift that is very meaningful to someone, showing how you understand them and know what it is important to them. It may be something that you have found or made and the value comes from choosing it with them in mind.

Acts of service means doing something for someone that you know they will appreciate and doing it in a positive spirit. Ask them what you can do to help them and willingly do whatever they need. It’s important that they want the help and that they know you genuinely desire to give it to them.

Physical touch sounds easy, but here it’s essential to give careful thought to what’s desirable and appropriate to the recipient. With friends and family, hugs and kisses may be great, but with work colleagues it requires more thought. Hand-shakes and high-fives are likely to be more suitable ways of giving someone physical touch at work.

We use different languages in different situations (personal relationships and work relationships, for example) but our preferred styles are likely to overlap. So what we know about our preferences at home can often give us a good view on what we are likely to need at work, too. And whilst we may have a preference for one language, there will also be others that we value too. So receiving appreciation in our secondary language can be almost as good.

Using different languages of appreciation at work

We can use all five languages of appreciation at work, as long as we give thought to what is appropriate and desirable to our colleagues. 

The most common way of appreciating people at work is likely to be words - it’s common to send a thank you email, or call someone out in a meeting, or go up to them in the office and share words of appreciation. For those who appreciate words, simply saying “thank you” can make their day. 

Acts of service are also quite common at work and fairly easy to carry out. Helping someone out who is right up against a deadline by taking on a menial task for them. Noticing that someone is running off to another meeting and offering to clear the whiteboard for them. Helping someone carry boxes when they are moving things around. All these acts of service can show that we value someone enough to help them. The important thing is ensuring that they want our help and that they know why we are offering. We mustn’t do something they don’t want help with nor imply that we think they can’t cope. It’s about an act of appreciation to show them that we want to help when they need it.

Similarly, quality time lends itself well to the work environment. One-on-one meetings should be about quality time; deeply listening to someone and supporting them in their ideas and concerns. It’s also great to offer a listening ear to someone who needs to vent or who wants to share a new thought or concept. The importance here is about really listening, without distractions. You’re not listening if you’re checking your email or your chat messages!

Receiving gifts is perhaps less common in the workplace but this is something that I have done, and have had done to me, many times. I worked with someone who loved a particular type of chocolate biscuit. When I saw them appear in the kitchen, I would grab a couple and put them on his desk. I was showing that I had thought of him and knew something he enjoyed. One of my team members once brought me some new sticky notes. She said she knew how much I liked them and had found a new style that I didn’t yet have! The value wasn’t in the sticky notes; it was in the fact that she had thought about me and brought me something that I would like. It felt nice to be appreciated by being in someone’s thoughts like that.

Although physical touch probably requires the most caution at work, shaking hands or a pat on the shoulder are generally considered appropriate at work. Using the right style for the right person at the right moment can leave people in a hugely positive state. At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and physical touch is extremely difficult right now. Elbow bumps have been fashionable as there is barely any touch involved. For those, like myself, for whom physical touch is a primary language, my suggestion at this time is to focus on whichever language is the second preference. For me, I will appreciate words of affirmation until physical touch becomes possible again.

Knowing when to give support or appreciation to colleagues

We should appreciate our colleagues and team members all the time, whenever and wherever possible. It should be a habit to share appreciation and let each other know how we are valued. Two things in particular may help with this.

Firstly, demonstrate giving and receiving appreciation. Learn what your colleagues need and use this to appreciate them. Keep using different styles with different people and showing them the value of feeling appreciated. Once people see something that works for them, they are more likely to offer it to other people. And when people show you appreciation, in any form, demonstrate how to receive it. Acknowledge it and thank them. Don’t brush it off or act embarrassed, but embrace it. Let them know that you valued being appreciated. This will build up the capability of the team to do it more and more.

Secondly, create opportunities for appreciation to happen. For example, whenever I run a retrospective session with an Agile team, I will ask them who they want to thank. Prompt them to share their appreciation for their team mates. Have an ‘appreciation wall’ where people can put up sticky notes when they value something. Even run an appreciation loop exercise and encourage people to openly acknowledge what they value about each other. Building in opportunities for this to happen is likely to begin to create a habit that will continue as it becomes one of the team’s core behaviours. 

Which language to use when giving appreciation

Knowing that we all have our own primary language, we must choose which to use with other people. There are three ways of choosing which language to use. 

We can notice what other people appreciate by what they offer to others. I have a colleague who likes to talk to people. He phones them up to share and listen to ideas. His language is quality time. I have learnt to give him my time whenever he needs this, regardless of how busy I am, so that I can show him appreciation in a way that he values. I also had a male colleague who valued physical touch. Although we worked in different countries, whenever we saw each other he would shake my hand, which later progressed to a kiss on each cheek. I never did this with any other colleagues but it was something he valued and I was happy to share appreciation with him in this way.

Another way to find out what language to use is to simply ask. Just ask the other person how they like to receive appreciation. This is something that every team can do with their colleagues. We need to know how to appreciate people in the correct way in order to build a safe and inclusive environment where everyone feels valued. Asking also ensures that we don’t miss the mark. I once had a manager who showed appreciation for something I had done with a rather large gift voucher. Gifts are my least preferred language, so I gave it to my parents! What I really wanted him to do was put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Thank you”. That would have cost him significantly less money for a much greater impact.

The third way to handle this is to use all the languages. If you don’t know which is best, then using a variety is going to ensure that, reasonably often, you are hitting the mark with one of the forms of appreciation. This third approach is particularly relevant when you want to appreciate a whole team. In a group of people, you are going to have a mixture of preferred languages. So how do you appreciate a team? I was once ‘rewarded’ by a team of people being invited to lunch with the CEO. As a desperately introverted software engineer, time with the CEO was more of a punishment than a reward! I would have much preferred him to have dropped into our team meeting to thank us personally. I wanted words, not quality time. Others may have preferred a gift. So, with a team, we need to use two or even three languages in order to ensure that we reach the greatest number of people.

The impact of appreciation in agile teams

The impact is potentially huge when people are regularly and genuinely appreciated. Our Agile teams have values which include things like Openness, Respect, Safety, Inclusivity and Trust. A behaviour like appreciation will contribute to each of these values, by helping people to feel significant and secure in their team. Not only does this motivate team members, it also helps them to know what specifically to do more of, which adds even more to the efficiency and effectiveness of the team. Motivation and high morale are both big indicators of a strong team, so anything that we can do to build these will help the individuals to thrive, the team to deliver, and the organisation to succeed.

I have seen appreciation at the core of many of the teams I have worked with, and this is one of the first things that I encourage them to work towards. In my experience, appreciative teams, where individuals feel a sense of value and worth in the team, will score themselves as happier, will stay together longer, and weather the storm of corporate change much more easily. I have seen teams fall apart where respect and appreciation are absent and it’s every man for himself. When appreciation is missing, we see toxic behaviours like criticism, blame and defensiveness appearing, where people feel uncertain of their value and unsure of getting the support from their colleagues that they need. On many occasions, I have seen appreciation build a safe environment in which individuals thrive.

In conclusion

Being valued and having a sense of worth and significance in a team is central to our engagement and happiness, and a key contributor to our performance in the team. When our colleagues use our preferred language of appreciation, the message is amplified. When they do this regularly, the effect accumulates and the positive impact is huge. As well as learning all five languages and how to use them, we must also consider how we show appreciation for a whole team, to ensure that the message is received by everyone. Appreciation needs to be a habit that’s ingrained and reciprocated throughout our teams and our organisations, in order to build psychological safety and inclusion for all.

About the Author

Christine Thompson is an organisational and agile coach who supports individuals, teams and whole organisations to become the best versions of themselves. Accredited by the International Coaching Federation, she is also an NLP Master Coach and is ORSC-trained. She works within companies to build people’s capabilities, coaches teams to achieve success and coaches whole organisations to build effective collaboration and attain the positive outcomes they desire.

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