Which language do you speak?


Many years ago, before even the birth of the internet, I experienced a very down-to-earth epiphany. I was managing (definitely not leading) a small team of five employees.  Our work consisted of researching global procurement possibilities for a wide range of products, making offers to potential clients, purchasing the goods, and arranging shipment to humanitarian projects in third world countries.

Much of what we did was pure detective work. Identifying and tracking down spare parts for aging water pumps, or finding the best turn-key hospital system, or even figuring out what a portable stone crusher was, provided me with an exciting and challenging prospect every day. A much less exciting aspect of the work was the laborious preparation of offers, purchase orders, invoices, and shipping documents.

I naively assumed that everyone on my team felt the same. I assumed they loved the detective work and hated the routine processing work, so I distributed all tasks equally. At one of our weekly meetings, I happened to let slip my displeasure with the registering of all of our invoices. Someone immediately and enthusiastically responded, “I’ll do that for you if you will research the hospital tent purchase for me.”

I was amazed that she would trade off the best work for the worst. Then, suddenly, everyone got in on the act. People were spontaneously trading tasks and rearranging their own work. The epiphany for me was that not everyone likes the same kind of work!

I created a spreadsheet with a very long list of the tasks for which we, as a team, were responsible. Across the top, I had our five names. I asked everyone to check off the work they preferred doing. Magically, over 80% of all our tasks were quickly accounted for. Distributing the remaining 20% was not difficult, since no one was asked to spend much time on a task they didn’t like.

The deeper realization of this epiphany was much more profound. This was my first real example that every person in every organization wishes to contribute at his or her highest level of ability. When we ask people to contribute what we feel is important, we often ignore what they see as significant.

In The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman contends that there are five distinct methods of expressing love. In parentheses are my workplace translations.

1)      Words of Affirmation (verbally recognizing and appreciating a person)

2)      Quality Time (spending time, maybe lunch or breakfast with an employee)

3)      Receiving Gifts  (public presentation of awards)

4)      Acts of Service (encouraging a person to attend a conference at company expense)

5)      Physical Touch (handshake, pat on the back)

Chapman maintains that we each speak at least one of them fluently. If our partner speaks another love language and we are not proficient in that one, we fail to communicate. Even though we are adamant in our expression, it is not being received by the other person.

In my experience, exactly the same phenomenon takes place at work. When we appreciate or praise a person for a job they do not enjoy doing, the appreciation is actually a demotivator. It tells the person that we don’t really know them. It says that we are only interested in their contribution to us, not in fulfillment for them. The praise can only be truly heard when it confirms person’s own perception of who they truly are.

How do we get it so terribly wrong? Our usual method of distributing labor is to look at all the tasks and the available manpower. We assign work according to a person’s ability (skillset) for a given task, without regard for whether they would enjoy doing the work over a long period of time (mindset). Then we wonder why, after three months of high performance, their evil or lazy twin starts showing up at work every day. Maybe they are just bored by the (to them) mindless task we asked them to perform. Maybe they are actually smart and ambitious and highly motivated, and we are not acknowledging any of that.

How do we determine another’s love/work language? One way is a psychometric assessment. There are many excellent tools that will reveal a person’s ability to perform a specific type of work. I use one that measures one’s innate proclivity for specific types of work. It helps to determine where people will be successful over the long term. It is also a highly accurate predictor of behavior and conflict strategies.

Various Contributions

For a start, though, how about just asking? Are you ready to have an honest conversation with each person about his or her ability, attitude, and interest?

Isn’t your primary job as a leader to assure that every single person in your organization is encouraged and supported in making their highest and best contribution?



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