Work Love Languages

February 20, 2020

What “language” do you speak in your work relationships, and how do you express and receive “love” at work?

The Five Love Languages” is a framework developed by Dr. Gary Chapman that seems to have tipped into near ubiquity — and I’m very thankful for it! I’ve found it a helpful tool in my own relationships (romantic and otherwise), and in my coaching. Being able to break a concept as big and complex as how we express love to, and receive love from, those around us into namable and discrete behaviors is exactly the kind of sense-making that I support my clients with.

In Dr. Chapman’s framework, the five love languages are: words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, and physical touch. Each person has a primary love language which speaks more deeply to them than all the others. “Discovering each other’s language,” he explains, “and speaking it regularly is the best way to keep love alive in a marriage.”

There is an analogous giving and receiving of love in a professional relationship that’s worth exploring, particularly as it relates to the ways managers and their direct reports give and receive appreciation. The “languages” that I have defined to “keep love alive” in this type of work relationship are: autonomy, support, praise, and challenge. (Question to the readers: what other languages do you think belong in this model?)

I have arranged them visually as such:

And I define them as follows:

Expression of Professional AppreciationWhen Expressed by a ManagerWhen Received by a Direct Report
Autonomy“I demonstrate that I value you by giving you space and independence.”“I feel valued when you give me space and independence.”
Support“I demonstrate that I value you by making myself available to you.”“I feel valued when you make yourself available to me.”
Praise“I demonstrate that I value you by giving you positive feedback.”“I feel valued when you give me positive feedback.”
Challenge“I demonstrate that I value you by pushing you to your growth edge.”“I feel valued when you push me to my growth edge.”

Take a moment to reflect on your own languages. First, as a direct report: Which of the statements in the third column (“When Received by a Direct Report”) reflect your truth in your relationship with your current or most recent manager? Now, reflect as a manager. Which of the statements in the second column (“When Expressed by a Manager”) reflect the way that you have behaved with a current or recent direct report that you valued? 

With Dr. Chapman’s framework, you can take an assessment to identify your Love Languages, and you are scored on a positive scale (0 to 10, for example) to indicate how much you value each of the five languages. I, for example, most like to receive love in the form of acts of service above all else at a 10, quality time somewhere around 5, and gifts at 0. In my professional-oriented variation, the scores can go negative. For example, I may perceive a manager who is always challenging me as explicitly thinking I’m not good enough, and interpret that as them not valuing me (even if that happens to be my manager’s way of expressing appreciation). 

Does an example of a mis-match from your career come to mind? The opposing poles in the top diagram are intentional: When a manager’s work love language is in direct opposition to the direct report’s, expressions of professional appreciation can actually erode a relationship. More specifically:

Desired by Direct ReportExpressed by ManagerPerceived by Direct Report
AutonomySupport“My manager is micro-managing me and does not trust or value me.”
SupportAutonomy“My manager is unavailable and does not care about my work or me.”
PraiseChallenge“My manager is always making me work harder and doesn’t think I do anything well.”
ChallengePraise“My manager coddles me and doesn’t think I can handle the next level.”

Understanding this, we can see how a manager who recognizes a rockstar direct report, but doesn’t express it in a way that that direct report receives well, can unintentionally lead to a disengaged and disgruntled employee. Avoid this! Share what your work love languages are! If managers and direct reports can learn to interpret and speak one another’s “languages,” they can achieve great outcomes together!

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Rada Yovovich is an experienced coach, meta-coach, mediator, trainer, and facilitator based in Chicago. She specializes in building leadership competencies that maximize individual and team potential, and aligning goals with values for individuals and teams/organizations to create cultural alignment and collective commitment.