Can My Language of Appreciation Change? Either in Different Work Circumstances or Over Time?

January 30, 2023 9:00 am Published by

A question I am asked fairly frequently is whether a person’s preferred language of appreciation changes over time. We don’t currently have a definitive answer for that but we are in the midst of researching it. However, there are some helpful data points which provide some direction.

As we work with companies and organizations across the world, we have the privilege to discuss a variety of specific issues with our clients, hear their questions, and receive feedback from them. Let’s explore some factors we have observed that affect the primary ways individuals like to be appreciated.

Life Circumstances

First, one’s current life circumstances can influence how we want to be supported and encouraged. When an individual is going through a stressful time, the ways in which we feel valued often change. The situation may be a medical problem we are experiencing, having to cope with the declining health or death of an aging parent, or stress due to behavioral or academic challenges of a teenager.

Generally, Quality Time and Acts of Service become more important during times of stress. Why? Because, in most cultures, spending time with others who are hurting and doing some practical actions to make their life easier are two common ways we care for one another. Quality time may be demonstrated by listening to a co-worker share the logistical challenges they are facing in trying to care for their mother who is failing mentally and physically. An act of service may involve covering for your teammate in a conference call, so they can go to a meeting with their child’s principal to address a concern.

Life Stages

Secondly, the specific “action steps” within one’s preferred appreciation language may also shift with different stages of life. Take, for example, a sales manager. In his mid-thirties, he frequently traveled to see potential customers as part of doing business, going out to dinner at fairly nice restaurants with them. Earlier in his adult life, he and his wife may have lived on a pretty tight budget, so eating out was a rare treat. At that point in his career, he would have welcomed a gift card to a nice restaurant as a demonstration of appreciation for his good work. However, at this stage, a gift card to a restaurant would have less value to him.

The Influence of Interpersonal Dynamics

Allow me to use my training as a psychologist for a moment. Psychologists have become aware that an individual’s behavior occurs within a context; that is, within a system (of relationships) rather than in isolation. The basic idea is that people’s behaviors and thoughts are best understood if you accurately perceive the system in which they live. The key point is that a person’s primary language of appreciation may shift, depending on the person to whom they are relating. For example, what they desire from a colleague may differ somewhat from what they desire from a supervisor. The personality of the supervisor may also affect what the employee would like to receive as an expression of appreciation.


One other factor that can influence our preferred language of appreciation is satiation (that is, the experience of having a need satisfied). When a person receives an adequate supply of their primary language of appreciation, their secondary language may then become more important. For example, if your primary language of appreciation is Words of Affirmation and your supervisor often gushes praise, compliments and a verbal appreciation, you may feel you “have enough” and actually desire appreciation shown in a different way – possibly through your secondary language of quality time. While this situation is relatively rare, and is temporary, once you move to a different work setting, your primary language of appreciation will become more evident again.


Even though we seem to have a baseline appreciation language that we typically prefer, we should not be surprised if we discover that your primary language of appreciation shifts in certain circumstances and with certain people. Nor should we be surprised to discover that the same may be true of your colleagues. We encourage you to be aware of your own internal reactions and the responses of your colleagues. Life is not static; people and their lives change over time. The best managers are those who know their people well, continue to get to know them, and make appropriate changes as needed.

To learn what your and your team members’ preferred languages of appreciation are, take the MBA Inventory.

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January 30, 2023 9:00 am

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