It’s a question that plagued Shakespeare, Hallmark, Sappho and Taylor Swift, and these days it has even reached the workplace with surprising urgency: How do you show someone you care?

There’s a mining company in South Dakota that has sought an answer with a bold approach. The miners of Pete Lien & Sons, in Rapid City, spend their days drilling, blasting and loading shot rock into trucks. Their hard hats protect them from flying debris. But they also serve a subtler purpose: Each hat has a colorful sticker whose icon symbolizes either quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service or gifts — what are broadly known as love languages.

Love languages, a method of understanding how people prefer to give and receive affection, were introduced in a 1992 self-help book by marriage counselor Gary Chapman. These categories were later adapted for the workplace by Chapman and psychologist Paul White and became “languages of appreciation.” How the 400 miners and mineral processing workers at Pete Lien & Sons grew invested in the lexicon is a story of family strain.

When the company’s head of corporate development, Sam Brannan, was struggling with her marriage in 2016, she took a quiz that identified her love language as acts of service; her husband’s was quality time. The results ushered in a new era of domestic peace — after she convinced her spouse that the survey was more than what he called a “Cosmo quiz.” Then Brannan learned that the assessment had been remade for businesses, a discovery that propelled her workforce into uncharted emotional terrain and led to an invitation for White to visit their headquarters.

“When this first started you could see the eye-rolling,” said Tucker Green, 48, a plant employee who likes words of affirmation. “We’re a mining operation, and the touchy-feely thing isn’t something men are generally comfortable with. But it’s become so much a part of what we do. I’m a believer.”

Love languages on hard hats

New employees at Pete Lien & Sons wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that love languages belong in the mines like a hard hat belongs at the dinner table. And for many years, teaching workers across industries that it was important to know whether their colleagues preferred compliments or free coffee would have sounded to managers like New Age nonsense, vestiges of the yoga industrial complex.

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But in recent decades, employers have learned that they have to supplement paychecks with other sources of motivation, especially when they’re asking workers to spend long hours on the job and when there’s a labor shortage. Workers want reassurance that their bosses and teammates like them. The benefits of appreciation are manifold: lower turnover, fewer days missed, even a reduction in on-the-job accidents. Two-thirds of workers in a 2017 survey said they would probably leave their jobs because of a lack of appreciation, according to the staffing firm Office Team.

Recognition doesn’t pay rent, but it can make late shifts easier to tolerate.

“When I started working back in the day, your paycheck was supposed to be your recognition,” said Chris Brennan, a performance specialist for a human resources firm, Insperity, who has spent nearly two decades in HR. But employers now know the financial benefits of praise: “It’s the goose and the golden egg,” he said. “You have to treat people well for them to want to do more for the organization.”

From that understanding has sprung a recognition economy, which takes many forms: “employee of the month” plaques (and associated free parking spots), holiday chocolates, indoor food trucks. Those perks have become harder to distribute during the pandemic, with some people working from home, and many also trying to build more emotional distance between themselves and their jobs. But high turnover rates and low unemployment have reminded managers that their efforts to motivate workers are sorely needed, just when they’re toughest to execute.

Recognition as reward

Executives who emphasize recognition have often learned from periods in their careers when they felt underappreciated. Take Evan Wilson, chief experience officer at Meritrust Credit Union in Wichita, Kansas, who spent his earliest office years wondering why no one seemed to notice the extra hours he put in at a regional bank.

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He now swears by White and Chapman’s “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,” adapted from the love languages. Wilson asks all of his direct reports to take the assessment. And he responds by leaving his office door open for the employee whose language is quality time, for example. He also asks managers at the firm to rate themselves on how good they are at giving recognition, on a scale of 1 to 10, and suggests that those struggling rely on the languages for a boost.

“The problem with appreciation is it’s like a bucket that leaks,” Wilson said. “It’s the role of the leader to recognize ‘I’m the one who needs to bring that encouragement.’ ”

Recognition has long been an Olympic sport of sorts to Rajeev Kapur, CEO of the marketing firm 1105 Media. When he was a manager at Dell in 1995, he spotted a red neon light on sale at Spencer’s, which he started plugging into his employees’ desks when they had a strong week of sales.

“You could turn off the siren part and just have the revolving light like one you’d see on top of an ambulance,” Kapur said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you know, Terry got a big deal, he’s on fire this week, he’s the No. 1 salesperson.’ Boom, you go put that thing on his desk and it’s like, ‘Oh, man, that’s awesome. I want to get that next week.’ ”

He calculated a substantial return on investment: “It doesn’t cost you that much. Maybe $10 for the light.”

With Kapur’s employees now working remotely, he had to determine how a flashing red light could take a virtual form. Managers at his company are required to surprise one employee each month with a perk, like a $50 gift card for a massage. Each company division recognizes an employee of the quarter and employee of the year, acknowledgments that both come with a certificate and financial bonus of some $500 or more. Every week Kapur sends out an email with the subject line “This Week In Good News,” or TWIGN, highlighting staff accomplishments.

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Recognition must ring true

Anne Genduso, a career coach, counsels dozens of women who feel undervalued in the office. Many of her clients find that their bosses’ praise skews toward the male colleagues who flaunt their workplace wins. “Employee of the month,” it turns out, sometimes goes to the employee who all but campaigns for it. Genduso has also watched companies hand out compliments that feel empty to workers who just want recognition of the challenges they’re facing in juggling professional and family care responsibilities.

“Getting your plaque on the wall is hollow if they’re not living it by actually being flexible, respecting work-life boundaries,” Genduso said. “Those are much deeper in appreciation than ‘Hey, we’re going to throw you a pizza party and put your name on the wall.’ ”

At Pete Lien & Sons, the miners know immediately what their co-workers value by looking at each other’s hats. Though taking the “languages of appreciation” assessment is voluntary, about 91% of the workers have completed it. Managers are seeing the results.

There used to be tension between the maintenance employees and workers at the mineral processing plants, Brannan said, especially when conveyors broke in the middle of the night and the maintenance staff had to wake up to make repairs. Now the plant employees know how to signal gratitude for that effort: by brewing a fresh pot of coffee, for example.

The miners have learned the specific types of affirmation their teammates want. The “quality time” types want friends to walk up the running boards of their trucks with a personal message of thanks. The “acts of service” people might want their colleagues to take tasks off their hands. For the “gifts” people, there’s always Snickers bars.

The managers heaped praise on White’s tools when he visited their office. He enjoyed the positive feedback: His love language is words of affirmation.