Lead Your Team To Inspire One Another

group of clapping people seated at conference

Foster high-level engagement by inspiring your team to learn and practice personalized appreciation habits

By Alicia Backer, PTA

Staff burnout, low morale, and high turnover are increasingly large problems across many professions, and physical therapy is no exception. As professionals in a business that advocates for the improved health of society as a whole, I believe that we sometimes miss the mark when it comes to fostering the health of the society within the walls of our own organizations.

I’ve watched firsthand what gaps in leadership can do to a highly engaged and dedicated team. Trust is quickly dissolved, and high-level engagement behaviors slowly decline. As the culture shifts, so do the loyalty and commitment of the team. Turnover is inevitable, and the patient experience will suffer.

We all know that there are many factors that play into developing a highly functioning team. It’s important to hire individuals who will not just live the culture of the organization but have the specific strengths and skill sets needed by your team members and customers. Good employees are not easy to find or to keep, especially in current times. Therefore, nurturing the relationships of the exceptional individuals on your team should be a top priority. Let’s assume that you already have a highly engaged lineup who are compensated fairly, strong in their clinical skills, and provide an excellent customer experience. Sounds pretty good, right? I promise you that this will not be enough. This team will need more than fair pay, strong clinic skills, and a full patient schedule to remain inspired. How will you fill their tanks so that they feel valued, appreciated, and loved and will continue to be motivated to do more than is expected day in and day out?


Appreciation, value, and love are some of, if not the, most powerful ingredients in life. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, felt so strongly about people’s need for appreciation that he stated, “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.”1 That is an extremely powerful statement — “the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival” — and I completely agree. Are we ensuring that the psychological well-being of our team is of utmost importance? Don’t answer that just yet, as you may be surprised to find that you’re missing the mark. As leaders, it is our responsibility to take care of our employees and their happiness on all levels.

We are all wonderfully unique human beings. What makes one person feel appreciated may not be the same for the next. There are many factors that play into our ability to feel valued: generational and cultural diversities, past experiences, internal language of appreciation, and more. Don’t assume that showing appreciation to everyone on your team in the same way will have a positive outcome. Spend time getting to know your team. I have shared this advice many times before, but there is something that I had missed. I overlooked the value of not only getting to know them but also guiding them and encouraging them to do the same for one another. Affirmation from clinic leaders is key but feeling valued by the rest of your team is crucial in the success and growth of your team and your business.


Most businesses, including physical therapy practices, establish a system of recognition for their employees — for example, giving awards for things like putting in a certain number of years of service, successfully pursuing advanced certifications, and meeting clinic productivity goals. These are ways to recognize individuals for milestones or achievements that benefit the organization. Although these awards are good efforts to show thanks, they do not communicate authentic or individualized appreciation. Gary Chapman and Paul White discuss the differences between recognition and appreciation in their book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.2 According to Chapman and White, recognition is more about behavior and performance that directly influences and meets the expectations of the company. It’s less genuine and is typically communicated in a relational top-down direction. Conversely, appreciation not only focuses on performance but also affirms the employee’s value as a person, is authentic, and can be communicated in any direction.2

We understand that knowing our employees on a deeper level and delivering authentic and individualized appreciation is essential to ignite your team. Get to know the real person behind their name tag and credentials. How can you learn what makes your teammates feel valued, and how can you fill their tank? The key is focusing on how they feel appreciated, valued, and loved. There are many ways to learn about one another using quality time as the strategy: team-building activities, a nice dinner, and club leagues are a few examples. But although these activities are meant to show appreciation for the team, they don’t exactly help us learn about individual needs. Sometimes using an objective assessment will help us not only discover ways to help others feel accepted but also learn more about ourselves.


The MBA Inventory, found in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, can help determine the primary appreciation languages of your team. These include words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, tangible gifts, and physical touch.2 Spending time with one another will naturally develop trust and safety, but knowing the specifics about what makes someone feel valued and delivering those specific languages will boost morale, strengthen loyalty, and ignite engagement. People grow where they are fully accepted.

It feels good to compliment someone or to acknowledge a job well done. I personally love showing gratitude for teammates, but I haven’t always done the best job of being specific in my words or actions, nor have I considered the languages that are most important to each individual. Some team members may prefer verbal affirmations, while others feel best when given quality time to discuss interests, ideas, and goals. One team member may hate verbal praise but feels most valued when receiving gifts. Be sure to personalize your delivery in whatever appreciation language you’re speaking. State exactly what you’re praising them for. This will also encourage other employees to emulate the same desired behaviors. As important as individualization and authenticity are, consistency also plays a significant role in creating and maintaining an environment of confident and valued personalities. This will fully allow your culture to thrive.

Inspiring your team through effective means of appreciation will take authenticity, personalization, and consistency, but the results will be well worth your time. Set your team up for success by providing opportunities to be the best possible cheerleaders for their teammates. Learn and share the information you gather during this process with your team, and you will start to see others leading in ways that weren’t expected. Employees who feel valued will be highly engaged, and higher employee engagement will improve attendance, decrease turnover, boost productivity, increase patient satisfaction, allow everyone to better enjoy their work, and so much more. Good leaders can become great leaders when applying these practices. As Simon Sinek tweeted, “Leadership is not a rank or a position to be attained. Leadership is a service to be given.”3 Serve your team by inspiring them to serve one another. 

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1Covey SR. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Franklin Covey; 1998.

2Chapman GD, White PE. The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations By Encouraging People. Northfield Publishing. 2019

3@simonsinek. “Leadership is not a rank or a position to be attained. Leadership is a service to be given.” https://twitter.com/simonsinek/status/1264961689268752389. Posted May 25, 2020.

Alicia Backer, PTA

Alicia Backer, PTA, is owner and physical therapist assistant at North Born Physical Therapy in Thief River Falls, MN. She is a member of PPS and the Impact Editorial Board and can be reached at aliciabacker2323@gmail.com and on Twitter @AliciaBacker.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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