NOTIONS: Praise works up, down and all around

September 26, 2005

Bruce Hetrick is off this week. In his absence, this column, which appeared on June 9, 2003, is being reprinted.

Last year, my colleague, Lisa Sirkin, gave every person in our company a blue file folder. She'd learned about "blue folders" from Jean Deeds when both women worked at the Children's Museum. Lisa wanted people in our company to know about blue folders and share in their benefits.

Blue folders, you see, are for notes of praise and gratitude. These might be memos or letters, cards or e-mails, Post-It Notes or performance reviews. They might come from bosses or clients, friends or co-workers, mentors or collaborators. Whatever the format and source, they say, "Attaboy," "You go, girl," or "We rock" in some fashion or another.

For the most part, one cherishes these gems, says thank-you and forgets about them.

But when you're having one of those days-when nothing's going right; when everything you touch turns to rust; when nobody loves you, everybody hates you and you're prone to eating worms-well, you can cure the blues by skimming that blue folder. In fact, perusing years of strokes can right your emotional ship, ensure that you're not a loser and restore your productive mood.

And while blue folders are delightful on the receiving end, they have giving benefits, too. After all, when you know that everyone around you has a blue folder and you know how uplifting their contents can be, you're more apt to say "good job" from time to time and help fill them up.

The other day, Lisa herself was in a folder-filling humor. So she sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "For your blue folder." (Lisa practices what she preaches.)

In her note, she thanked me for helping her out with an idea, then closed with the line, "Everyone needs to be recognized from time to time, even the creative director."

Now, Lisa doesn't know this (at least until she reads this column), but the "even" in that last sentence got me thinking: Have we, as a society, come to see praise and gratitude as something that's expected only from the top down and rarely from side-to-side or bottom-up? And, if so, why?

Dispatched on this tangent, I reviewed years of ego-gratifying blue folder contents. Indeed, nearly every note came from a superior-a CEO here, an executive vice president there, lots of directors and managers. Very few were sent by subordinates or peers.

Another trend became evident as I rose through the managerial ranks: The vast majority of kudos came from outside, not inside, the organizations that employed me.

As I was pondering this notion aloud last week, my wife, Pam, asked her usual thoughtful question, "Well, before you started your own business, how many notes did you send to your bosses and peers?"

While I could remember some, she had a point: Within my workplaces, the notes flowing laterally and upward from my desk were few and far between; the notes flowing downward plentiful. And, yes, the notes I sent to outside parties far exceeded the number sent to co-workers.

And why, pray tell, do we take the people above us and beside us for granted?

If you're one who believes that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten, there's likely a lesson.

In the Rockwellian image of the schoolteacher, there's a shiny red apple perched on a wooden desk. But in contemporary classroom reality, the student bearing an apple for Miss Jones is taunted as a brown-noser or a "suck-up."

Thus, we learn from a very early age that vertical praise means pandering.

Later in life, we're taught that revered leaders don't even want praise-and won't accept it if given. In his best-selling "Good to Great," for example, Jim Collins writes that great leaders are masters of humility, giving credit for organizational successes to anyone but themselves, while assuming personal responsibility for every misstep.

As for limited lateral kudos, either we're too busy to know what the fellow beside us has accomplished or too reluctant to congratulate a potential competitor for the next available promotion.

Meanwhile, book after book on organizational dynamics teaches managers to praise and re-praise the people "beneath" them. Some of the great ones do.

I have a hunch. My hunch is that the folks in the adjacent cubicle and the honchos up the ladder from you are human beings who, humility aside, would prefer feedback-pro and con-to a black hole.

In their classic, "In Search of Excellence," Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., write, "All of us are self-centered, suckers for a bit of praise, and generally like to think of ourselves as winners."

Even, I'd submit, humble, would-be "good to great" supervisors.

So Lisa, thanks for giving everyone blue folders. And thanks for adding to mine. And thanks for promoting upward, downward and lateral contributions. Now go put this column in your blue folder.

Hetrick is president and creative director at Hetrick Communications Inc., a local public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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