Got a boss you just can’t see eye-to-eye with? They could have a different work ‘love language’ to you? Here’s how to embrace the psychology of love languages in the workplace to help improve your wellbeing.
When it comes to romantic relationships, and even in our platonic friendships, we know that a level of compatibility is important. Do we have common interests? Value the same things? And do we express love, happiness and emotion in the same way?
The five distinct love languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, receiving gifts and acts of service.
But do we understand enough about our workplace love languages? After all, the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, so clearly the way that we navigate relationships with our colleagues has a lasting impact on us.
In any relationship, it’s essential for our wellbeing to feel seen, heard, valued and secure, and work is no exception. So should we actually be paying more attention to our work love languages in order to feel happier in our jobs?
What are the love traditional languages?
The theory comes from a 1992 book by Gary Chapman called The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. According to Chapman, everyone has a primary love language – and it’s this which defines what kind of love we expect from our partners, and how we express affection towards others.
As explained, they include: words of affirmation (receiving compliments or verbal validation), quality time (being given undivided attention), physical touch (prioritising physical intimacy), receiving gifts and acts of service (feeling appreciated through actions rather than words).
Now, not all of these have a natural or appropriate place in the office; however, there are certainly some that can be applied successfully outside of our romantic partnerships.
Love languages in the workplace
The most obvious workplace love language would likely be words of affirmation. Receiving positive feedback from a client, or being told by your boss that you’ve done a good job not only boost our confidence at work, but affirm to us that our hard work is being validated.
Whether these are regular shout-outs or involve some sort of reward, like an employee of the month scheme, having your contributions recognised and celebrated out loud is key to maintaining wellbeing and staving off imposter syndrome.
Indeed, a lack of recognition in the workplace can cause us to doubt ourselves, our abilities and make us feel less secure in our roles.
Romanie Thomas, CEO and founder of Juggle Jobs, agrees that positive words of affirmation are integral to maintaining a happy and productive workplace. “We frequently talk about the importance of feedback in the workplace with an eye to delivering constructive observations to enable people to learn from their mistakes. Delivering praise, however, is equally important,” she tells Stylist.
“Humans are designed to tune into negative stimuli as a survival mechanism, so managers need to be mindful of that and counter it with authentic, on-the-spot feedback praising someone’s achievements and efforts. In fact, it’s been proven that positive feedback releases neurochemicals that drive creativity and productivity.”
However, Thomas stresses that it’s vital that the feedback is delivered in an authentic manner and not just seen as a tick box exercise. “People can sense when feedback is contrived as there’s something false in the tone and words. Try using fewer words and get into the habit of delivering small bites, on a frequent basis.”
But this isn’t the only love language that can manifest in the workplace.
Receiving gifts, in the form of bonuses, or simply as a birthday whip-round or Secret Santa, can go a long way to feeling valued and included at work.
Similarly, while acts of service may sound like a ripe breeding ground for unhealthy power balances, it’s actually more to do with the idea of reciprocity.
Reciprocity is one of the famous “six principles of persuasion” defined in Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion. The idea is that we feel the need to repay others for what they have given us or done for us to show that we are grateful for their gesture.
If you’ve ever gone out on a limb to help a colleague, done something last minute for your boss or taken a personal sacrifice for work but not received a genuine thanks, this becomes easy to understand. For both employees and managers, utilising reciprocity through acts of service – picking up an extra coffee, taking someone out for lunch to say thank you or offering up your own time to assist them – can help improve or repair work relationships and win over co-workers.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had some great managers in my time, but often, as a hard worker or someone who just wants to get the job done to the best of my abilities, I have had bosses who have taken that for granted,” explains Mia*, a 26-year-old marketer from London.
“For a long time, I didn’t know whether I should feel incentivised and valued when it came to work. I always talk about love languages with friends in relation to relationships – both platonic and romantic – but why isn’t that conversation ever about another significant relationship that many people have to live with: the one with their boss? I get that in fast-paced environments, encouragement and gratitude can be lost, but they do go a long way, especially in the age of continual burnout.”
How to express your love language at work
Look, your manager might not be ready for you to schedule a one-on-one about how they can better align with your love languages at work, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put in small practices that will improve your wellbeing and speak to what you need.
First, lead by example. When you interact with your colleagues, take a moment to ensure that you’re making them feel as appreciated as you would like to be. If you have a colleague that you know responds well to quality time spent working through projects together or discussing goals, try and incorporate that into as much of your working relationship as you can.
What’s more, it’s common for bosses to ask their employees which management type they prefer, or pick up signals on which approach is having the desired effect. If you have the opportunity to discuss personal development with your higher ups, it could be helpful to signpost what acts you think motivate you and your team, as well as highlighting which of their behaviours you’re already grateful for.
However, Thomas does recognise that embracing individual preferences in the workplace does hold some dangers, for example with words of affirmation. “Delivering positive feedback publicly is wonderful but it needs to be done in a more structured manner, clearly tied to business goals. Otherwise, favouritism can overtake and create unintended politics in the organisation. Instead, aligning positive feedback to cultural points is a tangible and measurable way for companies to reward the employees that go above and beyond, encouraging others to emulate their behaviour, and consequently creating the intended high-performing, collegiate culture that works for all personality types.”