We spoke to Dr. Paul White, psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant. White’s book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, is in stores now.

Q. You have over 20 years of experience as a psychologist. How do business relationships compare to personal relationships?
There are similarities and there are differences. They both involve personality styles and communication styles. In business relationships, there’s often a power dynamic that is involved, because there is a supervisor to a supervisee. That reporting relationship creates a different dynamic than a personal relationship where that doesn’t usually exist. There tends to be more formality and distance, emotionally and physically. You have a different context that creates different expectations.

Q. What kind of rewards do you propose people receive at work?
We do talk about communicating appreciation that may be for something that they’ve done, but is not solely performance based, which is different from some business models that are highly performance based, like a sales team reaching their goals for a quarter. We are talking about character qualities and the value of the person individually. The fact that someone is honest and dependable can be valued even though it’s not performance-based.

Q. Why are business relationships so important? What benefits do they have for the company?
Business is built around people. You have customers, you have vendors, you have co-workers, you have employees, you have supervisors/owners, and you have the public as well. Work involves people; business involves people. Although it is more objective and data-driven than personal relationships, there are still relationships that are involved. It’s often the relationships within the work settings that create the most challenges and tensions for supervisors and managers rather than the actual tasks. There’s the issue of communication—that you have to be able to communicate clearly with people in order to get tasks done.

Q. Is there ever a line one should not cross in a business relationship?
Absolutely. There are boundaries and expectations, social conventions that you don’t cross. It varies from situation to situation, and the types of relationships. Obviously, sexually-oriented comments and touch are not appropriate, nor should there be verbal or physical aggression. There are boundaries that different people have about how much personal information people should know about each other; there are also legal boundaries about how much you can ask or find out about someone’s personal life.

Q. Do you think people are happier now or 20 years ago when you first started?
The research would suggest that people are less happy in the workplace than they were 20 years ago. Generally speaking, it seems that the overall sense of satisfaction both with work and at work is less. The demands at work are greater—people feel more stress. People clearly move from job to job more quickly. Especially right now, with the economic downturn, employees have been laid off. Research has shown that employees are doing 30% more work prior to the layoffs a few years ago and they’re not getting paid any more for it. So if you’re doing more work for the same amount of money, and with fewer resources and training and staff, that feels unfair to people and they resent it.

Q. What is key to communication between diverse groups of people?
We have to understand the process of the communication. The challenge in culturally diverse settings or relationships is that the message sent and the message received can often be inaccurate. In some cultures, looking at an authority figure in the eyes is disrespectful. In some cultures, not looking someone in the eyes means that you are not paying attention. The key then is to understand not only your own culture but how messages might be interpreted and vice versa. It’s understanding different people’s backgrounds, values, sub-cultures, and the communication messages that are around.