Appreciation in the Dental Workplace Part Two: The 5 Languages of Appreciation

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My fellow dental hygienists, do you feel truly appreciated in your work environment? Do your team members? How do you know, and how do you contribute by showing appreciation in a meaningful way? Not sure how, but want to start?

Perhaps you are a dental hygienist who wants to pursue a more managerial role, leadership title, or become more of a mentor to other hygienists and staff. Whatever the case, speaking the right “language” to individual team members is a fantastic way to start.

Part one of the Appreciation in the Dental Workplace series examined how appreciation can retain staff. This second part focuses on how to be a quality leader, employer, and team member. The emphasis is on first establishing which primary language of appreciation a dental team member resonates with and then learning how to speak that language to the team member effectively.

Practicing this method has been proven time and again to lend itself to a more productive, high-performing workplace where employees feel appreciated and respected, which is instrumental to dental practice growth.1

The five languages of appreciation in the dental workplace are below, with meanings, examples, and possible caveats to watch for when implementing. Some of these languages will apply more to the dental workplace than others. For clarity, we will discuss all five.

1) Words of Affirmation

Meaning: The language that uses words to communicate a positive message to another person, verbally declaring a favorable characteristic about that person. Stamp of approval. Praises for accomplishments must be specific to be effective.

Some examples include:

  • “Wow, Tabitha, we are done early today. Thanks for sterilizing my instruments with yours, even with our patient load today.”
  • “Cindy, holy cow, you sure seem to have a knack for capturing those third molars right down to the root apex on those periapicals!”
  • “George, you need to give me some pointers on how you thoroughly scale all that old subgingival calculus off the distal of those second molars!”

An affirmation of character is stated when a co-worker’s repeated positive traits are addressed. These are precious and should be valued. The focus is on the person’s inner nature, the way they tick, and not just single accomplishments. Attributes such as integrity, kindness, and selflessness should be profoundly cherished, respected, and appreciated.

Some examples include:

  • “Michelle, I’ve noticed how you manage to calm dental-phobic patients, so much so that they request to see you every time. You have them smiling and leaving feeling safe and comfortable. That is remarkable, and I appreciate you for that.”
  • “Greyson, you always seem to put other team members first, even when you are running behind. It doesn’t go unnoticed how selfless you are, and I want you to know how much we all appreciate you for that.”
  • “Hey Tonya, I want you to know that I hear your kind words with our pediatric patients and how you make each child feel so special and like a person with a voice. The kids really look forward to seeing you, and that is a real gift. You are special, and they know it. I treasure you for that.”

Praise for personality traits observes a colleague’s strengths and can be encouraged through verbal affirmation for specific admired mannerisms. We are encouraging repeated behavior, showing appreciation, and playing to that person’s strengths, which is a win-win for all.

Some examples include:

  • “Franny, I’ve noticed whenever I arrive in the morning, you are ahead of the game and have things organized and ready for the day. I admire that about you, and I want you to know that.” (Personality trait: Organized)
  • “Wow, Breanne, I’m not sure how you always think of so much to say, but you manage to make such great conversation with every person who comes into your path, whether a patient, co-worker, or delivery person! You brighten everyone’s day with your big smile and remember everyone’s name, which is super special. I need to take lessons from you on how to do that!” (Personality trait: Communicator)
  • “Shane, thank you so much for being such a cheerful person even with our crankiest of patients. It really sets a positive tone for the rest of the appointment.” (Personality trait: Positive energy)

Get to know your fellow hygienists and other team members before giving accolades. This helps the decision of whether a particular co-worker would appreciate the praise in a one-on-one interaction, in front of others, written, or in a large public setting. What works well for one person may not work for someone else.

Also, be sincere with your words, as the recipient will probably see through you either by your tone of voice, nonverbal cues, or past experiences that indicate otherwise. More damage than good can evolve from disingenuous praise than just staying silent. So, be mindful to reflect integrity with the words you choose.

A suggestion is to be intentional in finding as many opportunities as you can to verbalize appreciation. Neglect for doing this can be detrimental to the practice over time if a team member feels unappreciated, even when they are not. Make it a point to look for specific, individualized words of affirmation for each person, and this will go a long way to keeping staff and growing your practice, either as a business owner or a team leader.

2) Quality Time

Meaning: Demonstrating a person is valued by giving a valuable resource: your time, not necessarily by proximity but by personal attention.

The five subcategories of quality time are:

Undivided, focused attention: This is the most important aspect of quality time. An example is when a team member is speaking about something important to them, and your cell phone beeps. Ignore the phone without even acknowledging the interruption. This demonstrates to the person that you are solely focused on them and what they have to say.

Quality conversations: This team member desires not necessarily friendship, just time to be heard and understood, perhaps genuine feelings about a project, and to be listened to. Often, this conversation is short, efficient, and intentional.

Here are five tips for quality conversations and listening. First, maintain eye contact since it gives the feeling of full attention. Secondly, resist the impulse to interrupt. The goal is to listen, understand, and not give your ideas.

Thirdly, listen for feelings as well as thoughts. Clarify the emotions behind the words and paraphrase once the person is done speaking. Fourth, observe body language. Ask for clarification to make sure words match the gestures displayed.

Finally, validate and affirm feelings even if you disagree with their conclusion. If a team member feels supported, they are more likely to listen to an explanation of how a decision was made.

Shared experiences: Enjoy inclusivity and feeling connected to others. Some examples are being invited to participate in team events, leadership retreats, dental conferences, dinner with co-workers, lunch in the breakroom together, or carpooling.

Task-sharing with co-workers: Contribute to a common goal that often makes a difference in a special way. For example, a dental mission trip or community dental outreach can be meaningful quality time.

Small group dialogue: Some people who value quality time thrive in an environment where focused attention is on a smaller group, not a large one. Giving ideas to a large group of people might feel much more daunting than to a smaller one if someone experiences social anxiety.

An example could be one-on-one interaction or one department at a time for meetings. Input is gathered from the leader about how to make improvements to the practice itself, the department, or specifically for that practitioner.

Various types of “time” can be misunderstood and needs not met or breached. For example, your boss may spend a lot of time with you, thinking this is what you desire as a person who prefers quality time. However, maybe you are quite introverted with management and prefer your quality time to be with friends after work.

In addition, the desire to “fix” a perceived problem when an employee expresses a concern rather than be an empathetic listener requires a concentrated effort, especially as a manager who is more apt to lean towards problem-solving.

A hygienist, for example, can have a difficult day and wants to have some alone time after work to unwind mentally. However, the boss comes into the operatory as they are writing clinical notes to talk about all the specific patients of the day and how to make things easier for future days. While this is good to do and the intentions forthright, the timing might be wrong in this situation.

Leaders or managers in a dental clinic should invest time to show the appreciation that these employees crave and need. Reflect on how, where, who with, and when they prefer to receive this language to clarify what this team member needs. This just might help this person to feel included and needed within the team, which surely lends itself to employee retention.

3) Acts of Service

Meaning: The willingness to serve others before yourself. The act of “show, don’t tell” attitude can go a long way for those who possess this language of appreciation. This person will feel energized by others helping them in the way they need them.       

Some examples include:

  • Helping to flip an operatory over so the dental assistant or hygienist can concentrate on writing chart notes.
  • The hygienist anesthetizes for the dentist prior to their restorative work.
  • Making confirmation phone calls for the front desk during downtime.
  • Sterilizing other practitioner’s instruments with one’s own whenever possible.

Be sure to ask the person for a preference on how the job would be done. Doing a task the way you feel should be done and not how the recipient prefers can backfire and make the person resent receiving the help to begin with.

Complete what you start, or, at the very least, offer to help for a designated amount of time. A large task may not get finished, but you can designate an allotted time to get the ball rolling, avoiding surprises with unmet needs. This could have a reverse effect if not initiated correctly.

Ask before you help. Don’t assume a colleague wants help. Then, be intentional to commit to what is asked of you.

4) Tangible Gifts

Meaning: Showing appreciation in a personal way, giving a gift that is meaningful to that person specifically. It is a true reflection that you know what that person would enjoy the most. It is not a generic present that each team member receives. It requires thoughtfulness.

Some examples include:

  • Paid time off for an employee to attend a special event they normally wouldn’t have afforded or had the time to attend and has repeatedly expressed how much they would love to do one day.
  • An imported bag of coffee you ordered online, specifically for one of your team members who always talks about the special blend they drank in another country during a trip.
  • Ordering a specific instrument that a team member has been mentioning but didn’t want to ask for.

Be mindful to be specific with the gift and to give the gift personally, or at least delivered in a personal way, such as with a hand-written note that means you took the time to do it. This will go a long way.

Don’t stop giving gifts as a leader, manager, or practice owner just because it’s “too much work” to determine an employee’s favorite things. Take the time to figure it out. Observe and ask questions because it can go a long way to speak this language to the employee who thrives in an environment where this is displayed, and they are most likely to give you their best every time.

5) Physical Touch

Meaning: When displayed appropriately in the workplace, touch can be very meaningful to the person who identifies this language as their primary source of feeling valued. While quite controversial, it is not a language that should be left out of the workplace altogether. Many people need this language spoken to them.

Again, care and caution must be taken, and when in doubt, do not.

Some examples include:

  • Pat on the back with a “Well done!”
  • Handshake, acknowledging the meeting of minds.
  • Hand on the shoulder with affirming words to demonstrate care for the individual or difficult experience they are going through.
  • High-five for the completion of a hard task.

Get to know the way the person accepts and appreciates the physical touch to avoid confrontation or offending. Try to observe your co-workers to determine if physical touch is something they would find appropriate or if it is welcomed. Do they back away or cringe when someone touches their shoulder, or do they freely fist-bump and high-five their co-workers when a task is complete and well done?

Be sure to read the room and be especially careful with this language of appreciation so lines aren’t crossed. But don’t eliminate it altogether, or those who need this in their work lives will feel drained and unappreciated.


Remember Dr. Clark, from part one of this series, who called a team meeting to express his concern over staff turnover? It was suggested that investing his time to show appreciation in the way team members need to receive it may just be the key to the longevity of employees. After reading these five languages of appreciation, would you agree this just might be the answer for him?

Perhaps these tips could also be passed down to the rest of the team and aspiring leaders, not just to Dr. Clark. We all need to be accountable for how we treat others, and the best way to ask for appreciation is to be an example to others, right? Give, and you shall receive, my friends.

The final installment of this series will ask questions such as how are recognition and appreciation different? What’s your least valued language? Are there generational differences to consider? How can we overcome challenges in the dental workplace?

There will also be a couple of bonus reference materials included in the finale that I think you will all find very interesting.

As the American philosopher and psychologist William James once said, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”

To read part one of the Appreciation in the Dental Workplace series, click here. To read part three, click here.

Before you leave, check out the Today’s RDH self-study CE courses. All courses are peer-reviewed and non-sponsored to focus solely on high-quality education. Click here now.

Listen to the Today’s RDH Dental Hygiene Podcast Below:


  1. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., Agrawal, S., Plowman, S.K. (2013, February). The Relationship between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes. Gallup.
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Corina Hartley, RDH
Corina Hartley, RDH, is a Canadian Durham College graduate from the province of Ontario. Practicing dental hygiene since 2006, she has experienced the challenges of commuting to big cities, working in remote areas, and temping at various offices with differing ethnic backgrounds. While her family will always be her first love, the dental world is certainly the field she is passionate about, and writing about it brings her immense joy. Corina has a unique ability to relax the most phobic patient and calm an irate one with a smile, an understanding attitude, and a special sense of humor. She enjoys really getting to the heart of the matter with everything she does in life, and this is demonstrated by her witty writing abilities. Corina’s biggest desire is to share life with as many people as possible through close-up experiences, storytelling, and simply just being present.