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The Marketing Issue

Managing: The Languages of Appreciation in a Law Firm: Part 2

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: Part 2

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As a continuation of my last column, I’ve asked Dr. Paul White, co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People, back to this column to answer a few specific questions on how the five languages apply in a law firm setting. 

Dr. White, thanks for your continued willingness to help our readers further understand application of the five languages of appreciation to a law firm setting. Most law firms continue to bill based on an hourly system and have a traditional two-tier hierarchy (lawyers at top and everyone else below). Given this organizational structure, do you have any suggestions for how law firm leaders can provide opportunities for both vertical (lawyer–staff) and horizontal (staff–staff and lawyer– lawyer) quality time? 

In many work settings, the opportunity to spend quality time with co-workers during the workday is limited by the nature of the work (for example, hospital emergency rooms, manufacturing or busy top-down professional settings). As a result, alternative approaches are utilized. Getting together over lunchtime is common (but it is important to clarify whether the team member wants to talk about work-related issues or would prefer not to). Others may prefer to meet for breakfast, grab a bite after work or take a walk together before or after work. Some may enjoy going to a sports or cultural event together, potentially along with significant others. Some teams enjoy getting together to watch a major sporting event (e.g., the World Cup) as a group. A key component is for the time together to be a desirable activity rather than “forced attendance.” These opportunities exist even in difficult top-down hierarchies. 

Nelson Mandela is credited with saying: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” Lawyers pride themselves in being skilled in the latter. I believe that most lawyers also have both a good head and a good heart when it comes to those they work with; however, the busyness of law practice makes it difficult to remember the importance of expressed appreciation through affirmation. If, as you say in your book, “words of affirmation” is the most frequently chosen language of appreciation, are there systems or habits to remind a busy professional of the need to express them? 

Think of any action or activity that you want to prioritize. How do you remember to include it in your week? Different systems vary in their effectiveness depending on the person, but common strategies include: 1) putting the activity into your schedule; 2) setting a reminder on your phone, and 3) making a visual cue visible in your daily line of sight (“Don’t forget. Check in with Steven to see how his week is going.”). If the action were to take your chemotherapy to combat cancer, you’d figure out a way to remember to do so. Similarly, communicating appreciation to colleagues can fight off becoming a toxic workplace. 

It seems to me that showing appreciation to those whose language is gifts is the most open and obvious expression of appreciation others in the firm might observe. But how does one give a gift without risking jealousy or strife among those in the firm? 

Clearly, giving a gift is typically a very visible act. But our research (with over 350,000 employees) shows that receiving a gift is the least desired way of receiving appreciation (only 6%)—partly due to the poor practices of gift-giving in workplaces. Rule number one is to not give everyone the same thing. The value of a gift is highly related to how personally appropriate it is—whether the gift is something the person desires. In this context, it is “the thought that counts” (rather than the monetary value). Giving an item that reflects your personal knowledge of your team member is more important than the amount spent. Conversely, many employers waste a lot of money on gifts that are not valued by the recipient. Another interesting component is that gifts tend to be more impactful when they are not expected. So, an item given in February or March, not related to a specific achievement, will probably be received with greater joy than the same item given at the holiday gift exchange. With regards to the jealousy issue, a helpful response is something like: “I didn’t realize that gifts were important to you. I’m glad to know that now, and I’ll work to show you how much you are appreciated through an appropriate gift next time.” 

Do you have any suggestions for how law firm leaders can support acts of service in a professional office without creating an excuse for some to not get their own work completed on time? 

The most valued act of service comes when there is a need. A common scenario is when a co-worker is working hard to complete a task within a “hard” time constraint. Actions that others can do to help in this situation are clearly appreciated. Helping by covering for the colleague’s daily tasks so they can keep focused on the priority task, answering the phone or emails for them, doing some smaller “easy” tasks to keep the project moving forward—all can be quite impactful. Yes, a person can get in the habit of others “rescuing” them when they are behind, but this pattern becomes evident over time and can then be addressed. 

There seems to be a new phenomenon in the marketplace called “quiet quitting,” where employees reduce effort to the minimum level to stay employed, rejecting the notion of going above and beyond for the organization. How can the appreciation languages help overcome quiet quitting? 

Quiet quitting can be the result of various factors—not knowing the importance of one’s tasks to the organization, a poor match between abilities and responsibilities, and/or not feeling valued by others. Clearly, communicating authentic appreciation in the ways desired by the team member can help them become more engaged in their role. Additionally, appreciation can help by keeping team members connected relationally at a personal level. But exploring the reasons for the lack of motivation is also important. Often there are factors from outside of work that are also relevant (physical health problems, extended family issues, financial concerns), which may need to be addressed. 

My final question is: If we agree that knowing and understanding a co-worker’s appreciation language is important, is there any way we can really determine what it is? 

Yes, but the process is not as simple as in personal or family relationships. Asking a colleague: “How do you like to be appreciated?” is an awkward conversation in our culture. And trying to learn by observing actions displayed is difficult because the data points are few (How often are you present when someone communicates appreciation to others?). As a result, we created an online assessment that not only identifies a person’s preferred languages of appreciation, but also the specific actions within their primary appreciation language that are meaningful to them. For example, a person may value words of affirmation, but if you praise the person in front of others, that may embarrass them. Hence, we also identify the actions in each language the respondent does not want used to show appreciation to them.

Thank you, Dr. White. It is my belief that application of these principles by law firms—their leaders and members—could be revolutionary in our profession. Hopefully, lawyer leaders will try, and encourage their members to do so as well. Further information about the five languages and the online assessment can be found at