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High-Fives or Hugs in the Workplace? Good for Bonding or Banned at all Costs?

We all want appreciation at work. It’s rewarding, motivating and, ultimately, we feel valued for our contribution. However, did you know there are five different types of appreciation that can be used in the workplace, and everyone has their unique preference to which one reigns supreme?

My take on the full list comes shortly; but to begin with I wanted to, well, touch on what is perhaps the most contentious form of appreciation – physical touch. It’s a potential minefield you need to take a step back from and properly consider before entering a workplace ready to fist bump, high-five or hug! One person’s hug can be someone else’s basis for complaint, so ask permission before holding out your arms!

Personally, in a work context, I am a hand-shaker, generally reserving hugs for the people closest to me. While hugging at work hasn't become the norm, it does sometimes creep into greetings and farewells. Like me, you might have been caught out by an unexpected hug (and kisses, how many?), which has left you in a state of transient awkwardness.

However, I've also been a perpetrator - seeing an upset person in a professional context and thinking a hug will help. No, no, no. I was wrong. In my opinion, it’s best to leave the physical intimacy at home. Offer a tissue, a comforting word and declare yourself a hug-free zone.

How do you show employee appreciation?

“Good work, Claire!”– Claire's boss

When it comes to appreciation at work, most of us are well attuned to this sort of verbal praise. But not everyone feels appreciated in the same way. Here are the full five languages of appreciation in the workplace according to authors and counsellors, Dr Gary Chapman and Dr Paul White:

  • Words of affirmation: The most commonly used in a work situation, both spoken and written. Some people like praise in front of others and some prefer private communication.

  • Quality time: Some people want to have lunch with the team, do a project together or start their meetings with a personal check-in. Alternatively, how about quality time off?

  • Acts of service: Assisting a colleague to get something done, helping to brainstorm solutions or merely making them a cup of coffee can be encouraging.

  • Tangible gifts: Some people like to receive presents or champagne or gift cards in appreciation.

  • Physical touch: You can see this in a handshake, a celebratory back slap or a high-five.

Appreciation: fist-bump or a cup of coffee?

Appreciation: fist-bump or a cup of coffee?

Why is employee appreciation important?

Different surveys tell us that anywhere between 65%-80% of employees questioned will likely be looking for work elsewhere if they feel unappreciated or undervalued. Boosting employee engagement is one of the many reasons why my coaching with leaders often involves looking at appreciation.

However, it’s not just about simply putting it into practice. An essential part of leadership is the ability to articulate appreciation openly (at a team meeting, at the desk-side) and with sincerity and integrity. I also believe a bit more thought can go a long way in ensuring your appreciation hits the right spot. Along with finding out an individual’s preferred language, it helps to remember the following points:

Think about your ‘why’. Appreciation is about valuing and respecting the person for who they are. It could be their attitude, their thoughtfulness or their energy and not necessarily about their output or productivity level.

Make it meaningful. Being vague and generic doesn’t always cut the mustard. Appreciation that isn’t tied down to anything particular denigrates into flattery, so aim to be specific and sincere, especially about behaviours you wish to reinforce.

“I appreciated the way you calmly overcame the client’s objections in the presentation today, Jim.”– Jim’s boss

Make it regular. Up, down and around. Appreciation isn’t just a top-down initiative; you should also recognise your colleagues for their efforts too. Informal and formal, bring in the cake, including a round of appreciation in your meeting or finish off the week with formal company recognition. Make appreciation and gratitude a part of the company culture.

Make it personal. If everyone gets the same generic praise or gift, then it can come across as inauthentic. Take the time to find out what the person likes, their hobbies, their values.

“You clearly put some thought into this notebook by monogramming it; this makes it a special gift. Thanks!”– Architect, after receiving a gifted notebook.

What does employee appreciation mean to those receiving it?

Several years ago, one of my clients, who is a senior architect, told me how she went out for lunch with an old team leader at a previous company. She was told that the rise in her career was to be applauded and he was proud of her efforts and of having worked with her.

My client positively glowed telling me this and the unexpected support boosted her confidence in taking bigger and bolder steps in progressing her career even further. This is what I have noticed: when you experience good leadership, the support and the appreciation you receive lasts beyond the present role. The effect continues well into the future.

You've heard the saying “Employees don’t quit working for companies, they quit working for their bosses”. Staff who feel appreciated and valued are less likely to leave and are more highly engaged. Maintaining appreciation as part of the workplace conversation takes some sustained effort and commitment, but the reward is great.

In the United States and Canada, there is even a so-called Employee Appreciation Day marked on the first Friday in March (that’s March 6 in 2020 if you wanted to make a note in your diary and have a think back to those high-fives again!). So, how do you want to bring appreciation back onto your agenda?

Further reading:


SleepingGiant Consulting has an 11-point methodology for helping your leaders improve employee engagement using simple but powerful strategies. This includes adapting style and leadership strategy depending on each employee’s performance, talents and unique potential. Get in touch to discuss.