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Law Practice Magazine


Managing: The Languages of Appreciation in a Law Firm

Thomas C Grella


  • Dr. Paul White, co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People, answers questions on how the five languages apply in a law firm setting.
Managing: The Languages of Appreciation in a Law Firm

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While in law school in the early 1980s, Dr. Gary Chapman, an expert in marriage and relationships, was one of the pastors at the church I attended. His bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, sold more than 20 million copies. Additionally, Chapman co-authored The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People with Dr. Paul White, a psychologist, where the five languages are applied to work-based relationships. White has agreed to help us understand how these five languages apply to law firms.

Dr. White, thanks for taking the time to give us an understanding of how the five languages of appreciation apply to a law firm setting. To begin, perhaps you could give our readers a brief overview of what the five languages are. 

The five languages of appreciation are the same in name as the five love languages, but they differ in their application at work. Words of Affirmation, the most preferred appreciation language, is essentially communicating verbally how (and for what) you value a co-worker, which can be done in person or through writing. Quality Time is highly desired by many, especially younger employees. In the past, this meant individual time with one’s supervisor or manager, but is less true for younger generations. They value time with their colleagues and peers— going out to lunch or after work, getting together to watch a sporting event or just hanging out doing something fun on the weekend. Acts of Service are important to those whose view is “words are cheap.” A common example is helping one another when facing a time deadline to complete a task—whether that means helping cover some of their daily tasks so they can keep focused on the project, doing some menial tasks for them or taking care of nonessential calls and emails. Tangible Gifts are not bonuses, raises or luxurious vacations. Rather, they are small items that show you are getting to know your colleagues and what they like—their favorite type of coffee, a magazine about a new hobby they are taking up or a gift card to a specialty shop they enjoy. The key component is not cost, but that the gift reflects you are getting to know them. The final language, Appropriate Physical Touch, is not highly valued in the majority culture but is included because, first, it occurs in daily life through spontaneous celebration—a high five when a project is completed, or a congratulatory handshake when a case is settled or transaction closed. Secondly, appropriate physical touch is important to numerous cultures and subcultures, which include physical actions in their greetings and celebrations. 

Is application of these principles more difficult in top-down leadership hierarchies, common to most law firms?

Training support staff and legal professionals to communicate appreciation is not necessarily more difficult in top-down organizations unless team members stay staunchly committed to top-down communication. A key difference between appreciation and recognition for performance is that appreciation is person to person, and thus, can flow in any direction—from a receptionist to the person in charge of IT, from a paralegal to an attorney in another division, or from a partner to an associate. This freedom to communicate appreciation outside of the organizational chart is one of the strengths of the model and lays the foundation for appreciation that is perceived as authentic.

Most people think that showing appreciation is to make people feel good. Is that the primary focus, or are there other business-related reasons to communicate appreciation to team members?

While helping others feel valued and positive about themselves is one desired goal for communicating appreciation, it is not the goal. The goal of training team members in how to communicate authentic appreciation to one another is to create a healthy, well-functioning organization. Numerous research studies have shown the benefits that occur when employees (and leaders) feel valued and appreciated, including increased employee engagement, less staff turnover, reduced tardiness and absenteeism, higher levels of productivity, reduced staff conflict and tension, higher customer service ratings, and managers enjoying their work more. Appreciation in the workplace is similar to oil in a machine: The parts work together more smoothly, with less friction and heat, fewer sparks, and tasks get done with less energy being siphoned off to nonproductive actions.

Many law firm leaders believe they show appreciation by publicly recognizing good results achieved by members, especially those who achieve litigation success. Is there a difference between recognition of achievement and showing appreciation? Isn’t recognition also affirmation?

Your questions touch on several important factors. First, from our point of view, employee recognition and authentic appreciation are not equivalent (although they can overlap some). We believe that all individuals, regardless of position or status, have value. And their value is not limited to performance at work. Yes, we want effective and efficient team members who get things done. But employees have additional characteristics valuable to their colleagues (and the organization) that do not directly relate to achieved goals. Individuals who have a cheerful demeanor or an enjoyable sense of humor help create a more positive, relaxed work culture. Others who are calm and not overly dramatic when problems occur or when mistakes are made or in tense situations clearly add value, in contrast to those who become easily upset and actually make the situation worse due to their reactive nature. Second, recognition may be experienced as affirmation but often is not. Why? Because public recognition is often viewed as a “show” linked to ulterior benefits for the firm (publicity), and because the recognition is frequently experienced as generic and impersonal—the recognition event is essentially the same every time, with every recipient receiving an introduction and reward, followed by applause. Finally, we have found that 40% of all employees do not want to be recognized publicly in front of a large group. Reasons differ across individuals but include a general sense of shyness and embarrassment, not wanting to take credit for work done collaboratively with others, fear of having to say something when receiving the award, and concerns about negative thoughts and responses from others.

Interestingly, the 2019 edition of your book included a prescient chapter on virtual and remote teams. In recent years, much of society has moved to either remote or hybrid workplace environments. Is there anything further you’ve learned about applying the languages of appreciation in the workplace?

Absolutely. We actually conducted research with remote employees prior to the pandemic and then again throughout the pandemic. One interesting (but not surprising) finding was that, in general, remote employees as a group tend to value Quality Time more often than their peers who work on-site. They value touching base and staying connected with their colleagues.

We discovered three core components that underlie staying connected with remote and hybrid team members. First, being proactive is critical because the spontaneous interactions that occur when people work in a common setting don’t occur. You don’t see one another in the breakroom, coming in from the parking lot or walking by their office. Second, interactions among colleagues are important. Employees today value collegial relationships, and while they want to hear from their supervisor or manager, staying in touch with peers is equally important to feel like they are part of the team. Finally, communicating at a personal level (in contrast to always talking about work issues) is necessary for employees to feel that others are interested in (and concerned about) them as a person. Otherwise, the relationships remain at an impersonal, task-oriented level. The topics don’t have to be deep but can include talking about what they did over the weekend, how their kids are doing in soccer or discussing how the local sports team is doing.

Thank you, Dr. White. In my next column, I am hoping we can take a deeper dive into how these languages of appreciation apply in a law firm. Further information about the languages and your book can be found at