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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

So I've been thinking a lot about the value of praise and other forms of positive feedback lately.

One of the risks I took by taking my new job was of leaving my former manager. Suzanne and I hit it off from the start, but the reason she was one of my favorite bosses of all time was that she was never afraid of giving too much praise. Sometimes when she’d tell me how much she appreciated my work, or was so amazed by what I had produced in a certain situation, I would think, “geez, it’s no big deal.” But then I’d be more motivated to actually produce something that was a big deal.

My new boss doesn’t give me any feedback. He doesn’t tell me when I’m screwing up, but more discouraging, he never tells me when he’s happy with something I’ve done. The net result is that I don’t know if he’s happy I’m on the team, appreciates my contributions, or likes what I produce, and I feel a bit anxious and I’m starting to feel demotivated.

The weird thing is that Suzanne always praised, and I before I had her as my boss, I thought a lot of excess praise would be cloying or annoying. Her praise was always genuine, even if it was for something small, and I really liked that.

The same goes for the rest of my life. A little complement on my dancing or my appearance, and I’m floating on air for a while. And comments on details are so much more appealing than on the big picture.

The thing is that consciously, I ~know~ I shouldn’t need validation from others. The old parental question, “Why do you care what other people think?” rings in my ears. But so much of our lives depend on just that – what other people think. Other people thought I’d be good at this Campus Readiness job at Stanford University, and so I have the job. Other people thought I did a good job, so I got a raise. Other people think I’m a good (enough) dancer, so I have several dance partners to choose from without having to beg. And because I have people to dance with and a good job that I like and am good at, I’m a happier person. So I guess I do care what other people think. And I guess almost everyone else does to. So many people use something on the order of “What would (person x) think if I did (action y)?” as their moral compass, person x being most commonly one’s mother, or grandmother, or significant other, etc..

So I’m reclaiming it for myself. I do care what other people think. Maybe I don’t care about what everyone thinks, but I will consider their opinion and weigh it against my moral compass. Confucius was asked, “What would you say of the person who is liked by all his fellow townsmen?” He replied, “That is not sufficient. What is better is that the good among his fellow townsmen like him and the bad hate him.“ Perhaps that will be my standard, with my initial actions measured by the golden rule, and later reflection on those actions to include reflections on the insights and opinions of others. It’s not the only thing I’ll reflect on, but I won’t dismiss them anymore with “Why should I care what other people think?” I know why I should care – because I know how good praise and positive feedback feels, and it should be part of my practice in life to provide that to others, and to hope to receive it.

And yeah, they’re still be times when I justify what I’ve just done by saying “Why should I care what other people think?” without reflection. Conditioned responses die hard.

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