The class participants were wrapping up the day’s program with two things: First, a statement about the one most important thing they had learned that day. Second, what they were willing to commit to doing differently as a result.
As we went around the table, I listened carefully. Then when they were through, I picked something out of what they said.
“Okay so Brad, you said you learned a lot about how to get along better with your teammates. You’re a Lion (one of the personality archetypes we had just learned that morning). Based on some of the issues you’ve brought up today, it sounds like you got a lot of insight into what you could do differently. What I appreciate about your comments is that you’ve really made an effort to understand why you see certain behaviors in your teammates. Even more so, it sounds as though this has helped explain why and where you see friction. Have I got that right?”
Brad nodded. “Pretty much.” He was smiling.
“What I admire so much about this, and after today’s program you know why this is, is that as a Lion it’s not the easiest stretch to take others’ needs into account when your focus is on getting the goals achieved. That’s a big step. I think it’s going to make work a lot more enjoyable for both you and your team. That’s great work. Thank you.”
Brad leaned back in his chair, pleased.
Each person who made a comment got a similar response. At the end, they were all engaged, encouraged, and talking excitedly.
We Need to Be Fed
Perhaps even more than nourishing our bodies, all of us need the nourishing food of acknowledgment. From the earliest times as kids when we shout Mommy! Daddy! WATCH ME!! as we leap off a rock or into the pool, we hunger to be noticed, seen, complimented and validated.
The food of kind words and validation serve to remind us of our value, our progress, our efforts. We’ll do just about anything for attention, including being a brat, if that’s what it takes to get parental eyeballs in our direction. We’ve all learned how to do that, and it plays out in the workplace and in our married lives everywhere. Anyone who’s ever worked on a team knows that if there is a poor performer, or someone who is always having problems, that’s one way to get a manager’s attention. It’s not only highly dysfunctional, but it also teaches the top performers that the only way to get coaching and support from the boss is to act out. This is how we diminish good people, when we reward bad behavior.
There’s No Such Thing as “Constructive Criticism”
In one way or another we all grew up being critiqued. Part of this is to make sure we make it through to adulthood. We get hollered at because we managed to open that guaranteed child-proof pill contained just before our 3-year-old intrepid selves are about to gorm the entire bottle ’cause it looked like candy. That’s part of parenting. Thank god for that. Far better than benign neglect.
On the other hand, caustic comments about our scholastic achievement — or lack thereof- “I expected all A’s, Peter,” tends to dampen our enthusiasm. When it comes from the Great Gods of our existence as children, our parents or guardians, then their world view of us is like the Almighty determining our value. This is true of teachers, uncles, aunts, grands, pastors, priests…makes no difference. Adults are all knowing (at least til your kid hits their mid-teens, then adults promptly become morons) and when they determine our value, or lack thereof, they must be right.
Many of us grew up hearing plenty about what’s wrong with us. We’re not tall enough, smart enough, pretty enough, we missed that soccer goal, muffed the tackle, cost our school the championship. Parents who live vicariously through their children (kindly, watch any parent on the sidelines at most school games) can be among the worst. They expect their kids to be brilliant, perfect, the best at everything. Anything less is a condemnation of the parents’ genes. Blame the kid. Like the kid can do something about his heritage.
To wit: I was walking through the dining room one day at the tender age of thirteen. My father, who was reading the morning paper, grabbed me suddenly. Then he roughly pinched a chunk of the newly-developed fat that had turned up on my hips.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT THIS?????” He nearly yelled into my face. I had no idea. All his sisters and his mother were very large. I had their genes. At thirteen, I ran, worked, played, did extremely hard work around the farm. I wasn’t exactly a lazy kid, nor did I shove candy in my face all the time. I had no way of responding. I burst into tears and ran. And hated my body for years after that.
Is it any wonder then that so many of us grow up continuing the example of tearing folks down when this is their model?
We all want desperately to please our parents. Their approval, which is the primary, powerful stamp that says we’re wanted in this world, allows us to become what we need to become. When it’s withheld, or manipulated, or replaced by browbeating and verbal abuse, that does little to motivate. It does create resentment, despair, anger and dysfunctional behavior.
Some of us never outgrow the need to please our parents. The dynamics set in place can cause us to do immensely stupid things. When I was 29, I got breast implants in a failed effort to balance out my hips, and get approval from my father. It never came. In fact, it didn’t matter what I did my entire life, I never got my father’s approval, at least to my face. It’s intriguing that it wasn’t until after his death that my career took off, I published prize-winning books, and began to enjoy vastly more success. The Sword of Damocles had been removed. And I finally realized I needed to live up to my own expectations.
There was nothing constructive at all in my father’s attacks. What I have learned, however, is that it is far more likely that he was treated precisely the same way by his father who died long before I was born. Looking at my parents this way, as my mother was much the same, allowed me to embrace their pain with considerable empathy.
The Buck Stops Here
At that point you can end the waterfall. Shit flows downhill, but that can stop with us. The sins of the fathers (and everyone else) can end with us.
Let’s be very clear here. Flattery, protectiveness, helicopter parenting and all the other potential ills of going too far in the opposite direction have consequences. We can take what we have learned the hardest possible way through others’ so-called “helpful comments” and ask what feels best. It’s usually similar to what most of us need: specific, thoughtful, kind and appreciative acknowledgment. Feed us that, we listen. Feed us that, and we are likely to want to work ever so much harder. Feed us that, and we feel valued.
So…How to Begin…?
I’m not going to hand you a bunch of pap about how easy this is. Our knee-jerk response is to look for what’s wrong. It’s so automatic that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.
To wit: a new employee works her ass off for a month on a report for you. After putting in yeoman’s hours, giving up her weekends with her two young kids, working more than 12 hours each day, existing on coffee and leftover donut crumbs, she staggers into your office and hands the report to you.
You start reading. Promptly take out a red pen and start correcting. Soon the report is bleeding profusely. She’s watching. Tears form in her eyes.
“This is a piece of crap,” you say, handing it back.
You know how this feels. It’s happened to you. That’s how you know how to manage talent.
Yah. And you can kiss that extremely hard-working young woman goodbye as she seeks a better place to work.
Let’s roll that back and replay.
You take the report, put in on your desk and leave it closed. You look at her and say,
“Janice, I’ve watched you work incredibly hard on this report. You got it to me right on time. You threw your entire heart into it. I just want you to know how much I appreciate the effort. Let me do this: I’m going to go over this in detail. I’m sure your work is great. If I find things that need a little work, we’ll discuss them together. If you have questions or if I can help, just ask. However for now, just know how much I value your work ethic.”
Her face brightens like a snowfield struck by bright morning sun. She practically blooms. While she may worry about what you might think of her work (please, we all do), she has been validated by your acknowledgment of her effort. For now, that’s enough. She isn’t worried about having the hammer fall on imperfections. She’s smart enough to know she has a lot to learn, but she doesn’t fear verbal punishment for her learning curve.
For some of us, building a new habit of looking for what’s right will take a lot of effort. We may not be wired that way because of the experiences in our own lives. That may be understandable but it’s not acceptable. Why? Because marriages, friendships, parenting efforts, managers and leaders fail when they verbally beat the crap out of people who are doing their level best to please them.
Today, try looking for what’s right. Notice it out loud. And see how that makes you feel. I guarantee you it’s going to make the other person feel terrific. That’s a right fine thing for any of us. Acknowledgments are just as much a boon for us as they are for those who receive them. Give it a try and watch what happens.
Coming: different people appreciate different kinds of acknowledgment. How to tell the difference and get the best out of everyone.